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Department Of Education Report Shows Racial Disparity In Student Suspensions


Remember the black teenager who was thrown from her desk by a school cop? Violence in schools, bullying by other students - these were once dismissed as isolated incidents. But expanded reporting has produced a mountain of data which helps identify patterns of civil rights abuses. The Department of Education now requires information on everything from preschool expulsion rates to whether minority students have access to advanced courses. The latest civil rights data collection has just been released. For more on what it reveals, we're joined by Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team. Anya, good morning.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, preschool suspensions, I must say that took me by surprise. These are little bitty kids being suspended?

KAMENETZ: Yes. You know, it's only been twice so far that the Department of Ed has been collecting these numbers. And I think it surprised a lot of people to learn that thousands of very young children are being suspended each year, a few hundred, actually, expelled. And one of the ironies of this survey is that there's a bright spot in terms of many more districts are offering free preschool programs. And yet, we see, as we did in the last report, that black students in preschool are 3.6 times more likely than whites to be suspended. And so these new programs, which are so helpful for getting students ready for school, for some of those students, it's a very negative introduction.

WERTHEIMER: Much more serious, the report found that disparities between black and white children continue through the rest of their school careers.

KAMENETZ: Yes. That black-white disparity in suspensions even gets a little bigger in K-12. We see it with expulsions as well and notably with black girls, who are five times more likely than their white peers to be suspended.

WERTHEIMER: And a related area to the discipline issues in this release has to do with what is sometimes called the school-to-prison pipeline?

KAMENETZ: Yes. That's a term that advocates use to describe the set of structures in place that tend to get certain groups of youth less connected to school and more likely to be in trouble with the law. And so, for example, we see that over half of high schools with large black and Hispanic populations have a sworn law enforcement officer on the premises. And, in fact, there are 1.6 million students who attend a school that has no counselor, but that does have a police officer in the building every day.

WERTHEIMER: But are those two facts related? Are numbers better where there is a guidance counselor? If cops keep school peaceful, perhaps that works for students other than the ones suspended.

KAMENETZ: Well, that may be true. On the other hand, civil rights groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center argue that the presence of police in schools is linked to the inappropriate escalation of incidents into the courts. And this survey found that black students are 2.3 times more likely to be than whites to be referred to law enforcement or arrested as a result of something that happens at school.

WERTHEIMER: There are several items in this report that get at the actual quality of education, right?

KAMENETZ: Yes. This report looked at access to AP courses, advanced placement, to advanced math and science and to gifted and talented programs. And, for example, more than half of predominantly white high schools teach calculus. But just one third of predominantly black and Latino schools offer that course. And the same is true with other courses - physics, chemistry, algebra II, all of which are considered really important to getting students ready for college and career.

WERTHEIMER: When you talk about issues like which school has a security officer versus a counselor or which schools have AP courses, that isn't necessarily racial discrimination, is it? I mean, aren't there budgetary issues and other constraints?

KAMENETZ: Well, you raise a good point. And that actually gets to the purpose of all this collection. You know, the education department's Office of Civil Rights (ph) is charged with enforcing civil rights laws that cover race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability. And so the reason to report this evidence of disparity - it's not necessarily evidence of discrimination. But it does highlight a lot of issues that could motivate complaints, investigations, hopefully positive action down the road.

WERTHEIMER: Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team - Anya, thank you.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.