"Zero Tolerance" Policies Target Minority Students

In the wake of national attention focused on zero tolerance policies -- disciplinary programs that assign swift, often harsh punishments for specific offenses that are in effect in many schools throughout the country -- new data shows that suspension rates of African-American students are often much higher than those of their white counterparts. The statistical evidence, published by the Applied Research Center (ARC) (www.arc.org), an Oakland, California-based research, education and policy institute that focuses on issues of race and social change, reflects findings in ten school districts and are part of a larger study to be released in February. The data reveals that in the San Francisco, Austin, Denver and Los Angeles school districts the percentage of African-American students suspended is twice the percentage of African Americans in the student population. At Phoenix's Union High School District, the number suspended was actually five times the percentage of the student population.Reverend Jesse Jackson, president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition (www.RainbowPush.org), applauded the research. Jackson has recently brought the issue of zero tolerance policies to the forefront of national debate through his efforts to defend the "Decatur Seven" -- seven African-American students who were expelled from a Decatur, Illinois high school for two years because of their involvement in a fight in September. Jackson has charged that such policies, inspired by the barrage of school violence in recent years, are racially discriminatory."The figures are astounding," Jackson said. "Increasingly, school districts are choosing penal remedies over education remedies when it comes to disciplining students. The reasons for these glaring disparities must also be explored."While further exploration is needed to see if the punishments being doled out are appropriate for the offenses committed and are equitable across racial and class lines, ARC's findings offer a clear snapshot of the current state of school disciplinary programs.After meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley last week, Jackson called for the department to collect information on national suspension and expulsion rates by race. The latest data the department had was from 1994, and much has changed since then with the enforcement of zero tolerance policies.In light of the Department of Education's out-of-date statistics, ARC decided to release its findings early. (When the larger study is released in February it also will include data on dropout rates, college entrance rates, racial composition of teachers and a number of other factors in about 20 school districts.) "We see an acceleration of people of color being punished in higher numbers and for longer periods of time," said Terry Keleher, program director of ERASE, an ARC initiative aimed at exposing, documenting and challenging racism in public education. "The statistics bear out a lot of our anecdotal evidence that often white students are given the benefit of the doubt while African Americans and other students of color are assumed guilty until proven innocent."Keleher suggests that those concerned with the issue visit ARC's Web site at www.arc.org to find out about the Racial Justice Report Card, which can be used to document and expose problems in schools and assist officials in remedying them. Those concerned can also call upon local, state and federal officials to mandate more reporting around race and class issues. "Our hope is that instead of looking toward increasing punitive measures," Keleher said, "more resources and attention will be put into preventive measures."

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