Thursday, February 20, 2003

Report critical of school discipline

Black youths suspended more often than whites

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A new report released Wednesday found that Kentucky's black youth are suspended from many schools at rates up to 17 times the suspension rates for Kentucky's white students.

The report also found that tens of thousands of students are suspended from Kentucky's schools each year for violation of minor policies set by school boards.

"In additional to the problem with suspensions, we found that many, many youth are being referred to Kentucky's courts for minor and mischievous behavior that are not criminal," said the report's co-author, David Richart, director of the National Institute on Children at Spalding University in Louisville.

"Zero tolerance policies seem to be a back-door way of getting rid of certain student populations. When policies send a message to African-American youth that they are disposable and less valuable, it's no wonder that Kentucky is struggling with a dramatic achievement gap."

"Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Zero Tolerance and other Exclusionary Policies on Kentucky Students" found that in some school districts, black youths are suspended two to seven times as frequently as white students for minor policies such as disturbing class.

The report found that there were 68,000 suspensions for violations set by school boards in the 2000-'01 school year.

Black students were also suspended two to 17 times as frequently as white students, depending on the school district, for law violations such as possession of drugs.

In Bell County in Eastern Kentucky, for example, according to the report, a white student was dared by his friends to pick a fight with a black student. He approached the black student, called him a racial slur and struck him. Despite the fact both students were fighting, the black youth was suspended for two weeks, while the white youth was suspended for only one week.

The administration of the school district justified its decision by saying that the black student continued to fight after the white student stopped, with no consideration of the racial harassment and provocation of the part of the white student, according to the report.

Northern Kentucky's school districts generally fared better in the report than many districts across the state, according to the Children's Law Center in Covington. Newport Independent School District suspended students for violating the law at a rate of 2.1 black students for every one white student.

Newport schools officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. Covington Independent School District's rate was 1.6 black students for every one white student.

Those ratios are far lower, for example, than Jefferson County's suspension rate of 17 black students for every one white student or Estill County's 10.7 black students to every one white student.

"This report is extremely timely," said Russell Skiba, associate professor of counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University. "Its major findings, that the vast majority of school disruption is non-dangerous, that school suspension tends to be overused for relatively minor disruption, and that the primary victims of school removal are African-American, are highly consistent with two recent national reports and with research data going back 25 years."

The study is the eighth report that has been published by Building Blocks for Youth, a multi-year initiative to reduce racial disparities affecting youth of color in the justice system and promote rational and effective juvenile justice policies. The groups who put this study together are the National Institute on Children, Youth & Families at Spalding University, the Children's Law Center, and the Youth Law Center in Washington D.C.

School violence and zero-tolerance policies became a political topic in Kentucky in December 1997 when 14-year-old Michael Carneal shot into a prayer group at Heath High School in West Paducah. Carneal's shooting killed three young people and wounded five other students. The Kentucky shooting was followed in April 1999 with an even more infamous school shooting, at Columbine High School in Colorado.

The report's authors said those incidents had an enormous effect on public perceptions of school dangers and on school policies although violence in schools is actually quite rare. The chance of becoming a victim in a school-associated violent death is less than one in a million, according to the report.

Nationally, the report's authors said, several prominent incidents highlighted extreme decisions by school officials. For example, a 13-year-old honor student from Fairborn, Ohio, received an 80-day suspension for bringing ibuprofen to class. It later was reduced to three days.


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