Can A Racial Gap In School Suspensions Lead To Prison? Yes, Say Some Civil Rights Advocates

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Christian Science Monitor recently asked the question: “School suspensions: Does racial bias feed the school-to-prison pipeline?” According to the magazine, the sharp increase in school suspensions may increase the likelihood of more minority youth entering then prison system – and even violate civil rights.

According to a recent study, there is a racial discrepancy between suspensions. Christian Science Monitor cited the example of two students—an African-American kindergarten student and a white ninth grader– who set off fire alarms in the same school district. The black student was suspended for five days; the other for one day.

According to data gathered nationally by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), while African Americans make up 18 percent of students, they account for 46 percent of students suspended more than once, 39 percent of students expelled, and 36 percent of students arrested on campus. The data was taken from 72,000 American public schools in the 2009-10 school year.

Looking at the white student population however, the stats are remarkably different. White students make up 29 percent of multiple suspensions and 33 percent of expulsions – but 51 percent of the students.

On the whole, school suspension have been on the rise. In 1976, nearly 1.8 million students were suspended – four percent of all public school students; by 2006, the number of students suspended had nearly doubled to 3.3 million, about seven percent of all students, found the Department of Education.

And the racial divide has sharpened as well. “Nearly two decades of a ‘zero tolerance’ mentality has contributed dramatically to a spike in exclusionary discipline that involves racial disparities, youth and civil rights advocates say,” reports the magazine.

This affects college applicants and then, further down the line, job opportunities for minorities. According to a groundbreaking 2011 Texas study that tracked more than one million students for six years called “Breaking Schools’ Rules” by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in New York, of the 15 percent of students suspended or expelled 11 or more times in Texas, only four in 10 graduated within one to three years of their expected graduation date.

And with a lack of opportunities, this could lead some to the prison system. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights recently considered testimony about the school-to-prison pipeline – and how some communities are trying to reverse it.

Critics say there is no connection. Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said at the Senate hearing that in the past two decades school crime as well as juvenile arrests have declined at the same time that schools have expanded the use of resource officers – typically armed police who are trained to work with students.

Still, some school districts are changing the way they practice discipline. Last year, Colorado passed the Smart School Discipline Bill, which eliminates mandatory suspensions and expulsions for anything except carrying a firearm reports the Christian Science Monitor.  And, a new law in Massachusetts says students can no longer be permanently excluded from school, and gives them the right to alternative education if they are suspended for more than 10 days and also requires schools to work with students to try to improve their behavior before excluding them from school. Other states have passed or are looking at similar laws.

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