By:  Erica L. Green
Source: New York Times

Government Watchdog Finds Racial Bias in School Discipline

WASHINGTON — Black students continue to be disciplined at school more often and more harshly than their white peers, often for similar infractions, according to a new report by Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog agency, which counters claims fueling the Trump administration’s efforts to re-examine discipline policies of the Obama administration.

The report, issued by the Government Accountability Office on Wednesday, is the first national governmental analysis of discipline policies since the Obama administration issued guidance in 2014 that urged schools to examine the disproportionate rates at which black students were being punished.

Critics of the Obama-era guidance have questioned whether students of color suffer from unfair treatment under school discipline policies. But the G.A.O. found that not only have black students across the nation continued to bear the brunt of such policies, but the impact was felt more widely than previously reported — including by black students in affluent schools.

Additionally, the agency found that school suspensions began to fall the year before the Obama administration urged schools to move away from the overuse of such measures, undermining claims that the guidance forced schools to cut suspensions. While the Obama administration’s aggressive civil rights investigations did reveal that black students were subjected to harsher treatment than their white peers for similar infractions, the G.A.O. found that it did not impose any new mandates on districts to reduce their suspension rates.

The findings are likely to bolster arguments for preserving the 2014 guidance and undercut conservative claims that the guidance has resulted in federal overreach and a decline in school safety.

The Obama administration guidance was issued based on data that showed that, in 2012, black students were being suspended at three times the rate as their white peers. According to the G.A.O. analysis, in the 2013-2014 school year, black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school.

The agency also found the disparities for black students started in preschool, and persisted regardless of the type of school they attended — disparities were particularly acute in charter schools — or the disciplinary action they received.

And black students were the only race where both boys and girls were disproportionately disciplined across six disciplinary actions examined, which included corporal punishment, in- and out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and school-related arrests.

Moreover, the agency found that black students were suspended more often than their white peers in schools of all poverty levels. In the most affluent schools, black boys accounted for 7.5 percent of out-of-school suspensions, while white boys accounted for 1.8 percent.

The G.A.O. analysis was requested by Representative Bobby Scott, Democrat of Virginia, and Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York.

The agency was charged with identifying patterns in disciplinary actions among public schools, the challenges that school districts faced with discipline reform, and how the departments of education and justice have addressed the issue through enforcement measures.

The report was praised by Democratic lawmakers as evidence that the 2014 guidance has value. The guidance informed schools that wide racial disparities could signal discriminatory practices that could result in a federal investigation and loss of federal funding. It also suggested a number of strategies for managing nonviolent behavior without resorting to suspensions.

“The GAO’s first-of-its-kind analysis confirms that racial bias contributes to pervasive discipline disparities,” Mr. Scott and Mr. Nadler said in a joint statement. “The GAO’s findings underscore the need to strengthen the guidance, not rescind it as some have recommended.”

But critics who want to see the Obama-era guidance rescinded said the report’s scope was too narrow to draw broad conclusions.

G.A.O. auditors conducted their investigation from November 2016 through March 2018, examining federal civil rights data, conducting interviews with Education Department and Justice Department officials, and researching discipline practices in five states — Georgia, North Dakota, Texas, California and Massachusets.

“None of these findings change the basic storyline,” said Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “What we’ve learned is discipline reform is being applied unevenly. If you are concerned there are some specific districts, and schools are responding particularly poorly to this, I don’t think this study gets at that question.”

Mr. Petrilli also said the report does not answer the question at the heart of the Obama-guidance criticism — whether racial bias accounts for all of the disparities.

The G.A.O. examination illustrated how racial bias was unfolding in some districts.

For instance, at a school district in Kentucky where black students were 10 times more likely than white students to be disciplined, school officials acknowledged that there were few safeguards to protect against the uneven application of harsh discipline. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights found that the school district had 61 types of violations that were undefined, which allowed staff to punish black students more harshly.

In all of the cases, the report noted, school districts came to voluntary resolution agreements with the departments, agreeing to hire staff and review policies to close their suspension gaps. District officials also reported that they maintained broad discretion in how they disciplined students, and that more serious offenses, like those concerning weapons, violence and drugs, still resulted in removing students from school.

All of the school districts reported that while they embraced the opportunity to revise their approach to discipline, their biggest barrier was not student behavior. It was the lack of resources to tackle cases of trauma and mental health issues that increasingly plague the nation’s children.