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Research shows black students punished more severely. Why don't schools believe it and fix it?

Mike Tafelski is a supervising attorney in the Piedmont Office of Georgia Legal Services Program. He has represented several children in discipline cases in Atlanta’s exurbs.

Georgia Legal Services recently compiled discipline statistics from all Georgia school districts and found disturbing inequities in the punishments handed out to black students. Today, Tafelski writes about those findings.

Click here to read a New York Times story about one extraordinary metro Atlanta school discipline case. Click here to read a federal report on inequities in school discipline.

Despite all the consistent research and data showing black students are punished more severely for even mild transgressions -- dress code violations, talking in class -- the issue meets with great resistance from posters on this blog. I am not sure why. But the wide gulf between what the data and evidence show and what the public believes may be a reason the discipline disparities persist.

By Mike Tafelski

Images of businesses burning in Ferguson, Mo., and the still bodies of demonstrators carpeting streets in New York City protesting the killings of young black men by police are so disturbing because we all know we are one gunshot away from a similar incident here in Georgia.

In many cities and towns outside Atlanta, relationships are strained between police departments and the communities they serve. Our jails and prisons are overflowing with young black men arrested in alarming numbers, way beyond their representation in the population. Stories abound of pointless traffic stops or other encounters with police sparked by nothing more than driving or walking while black.

But to understand where this tense standoff began, we must look at our schools, where messages are sent daily that actions by African-American children must be punished more severely than those by white children. It is little wonder that the same dynamic plays out when those children are grown and confronting each other on the street.

Consider this: The Georgia Bureau of Investigation reports that in 2013, 65,230 people were arrested, 57.6 percent of whom were non-white. That same year, non-whites made up only 37.5 percent of the state’s population.

During the 2011-2012 school year, according to a report we here at Georgia Legal Services Program compiled using district data, African-American students represented 37 percent of all students but made up 54 percent of students who received in-school suspension, 66 percent of students who received out-of-school suspension, and 50 percent of students expelled.

The similarities between statistics on arrests and school discipline are not accidental.

While there are federal and state laws and policies expressly prohibiting discrimination against students of color, the initial referral of a student to the principal’s office, or a school official’s decision to seek the harshest punishment or even back-up from law enforcement, are not specifically covered by those laws and policies. It is into these gaps that many African-American students fall.

Here’s an illustration: In Macon, a 10-year-old African-American fourth grader was bullied on the playground by a white classmate. Back in the classroom, the black child wrote a note that said, in part, “Don’t mess with me or I will hurt you.” He drew a skull and crossbones underneath. The teacher intercepted the note and sent the black child to the principal’s office.

The white child was not disciplined at all. The black child was charged with making terroristic threats and expelled from school. A Georgia Legal Services lawyer helped get the charges dropped and the child back in school, but the impression was made, both on the African-American child and his white classmates.

White classmates see their black counterparts treated this way, and in the back of their minds, the seed is planted: This is the way black people should be treated. When those white children grow up to be police officers, teachers or employers, that seed blossoms into action, implicit or explicit, that push people of color away from participation in the systems of our society. For many black children, school careers filled with these shoves toward the door result in angry young people who drop out of school and have no use for the systems they perceive as “white only.”

“The message we send when we suspend or expel any student is that that student is not worthy of being in the school,” Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, told Essence magazine. “That is a pretty ugly message to internalize and very, very difficult to get past as part of an educational career.”

Discipline systems must be reformed. Here’s how to start:

• Make sure school officials have met with the child’s parents to determine whether alternatives to long-term suspension, expulsion or criminal charges are considered before a disciplinary hearing is held.

• Ensure disciplinary hearings are conducted by an impartial third party. As it is, most school hearings are presided over by a school official, often the school system’s lawyer who is also representing the school. What incentive does that lawyer have to negotiate a more reasonable settlement than expulsion if he knows he will have such a powerful influence over the outcome of the hearing?

• Disciplinary hearings should use basic rules of law and evidence so that hearsay evidence is not relied upon to decide a child’s guilt or innocence.

• Of paramount importance: Schools should look at their discipline statistics and determine whether African-American children are being suspended or expelled in far greater numbers than their representation in the student population — and if so, figure out why.

With such a fundamental right — the right to an education — at stake, school officials and the communities they serve must recognize that, despite good intentions, unconscious biases can come into play. They must consider whether an African-American child deserves to be sentenced to a lifetime of anger and perhaps a lifetime of ignorance just because of the color of his skin.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.