Eric Holder Calls Texas Suspensions of Black Students A ‘Wake-up Call’

The comments were in response to a report that found black and Latino students were punished at higher rates than their classmates.

By Julianne Hing Jul 26, 2011

Last week came troubling news about the impact of zero tolerance policies in schools when the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments released findings from a six-year study that showed that nearly sixty percent of Texas public school students had been expelled or suspended at least one time between their seventh and twelfth grades of school. The report also found that in Texas, as in the rest of the country, black and Latino students were punished at higher rates than their non-black and Latino classmates.

On Thursday Attorney General Eric Holder responded to the findings, calling the report a "wake-up call," Education Week reported.

The study found, for example, that 83 percent of black males had at least one disciplinary action on their record which ended with them being removed from school. Seventy percent of Latino males had been similarly disciplined at least once, though 59 percent of white males had the same record. The study found that 70 percent of black female students had been disciplined, though just 37 percent of white female students had been, often for identical offenses.

Over the course of the study, one million students were suspended or expelled, and those students who were disciplined this way were also more likely to drop out or have to repeat a grade of school. 

As a response to the report, Education Week reported, the Departments of Justice and Education are starting the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a joint program to encourage schools to use alternative measures to deal with disciplinary programs before calling police officers.

EdWeek reports that the program will work on:

* Building consensus for action among federal, state and local education and justice stakeholders; 

• Collaborating on research and data collection needed to shape policy, such as evaluations of alternative disciplinary policies and interventions; 

 • Developing guidance to ensure school discipline policies and practices are in line with the federal civil rights laws; 

 • And promoting awareness and knowledge about evidence-based and promising policies and practices.

The report also found that 15 percent of students who were disciplined with suspensions or expulsions had been so 11 times or more. The Justice Center also found that 97 percent of the disciplinary actions were a result of school administration and staff exercising their discretionary power to punish students. Just three percent of the expulsions and suspensions were actually mandated by Texas state law.

In Texas, students of color make up two-thirds of the state’s public school enrollment system, which is the second largest in the country.

"Maintaining safe and supportive school climates is absolutely critical, and we are concerned about the rising rates and disparities in discipline in our nation’s schools," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement last week. Duncan said, as many critics of zero-tolerance policies have argued over the years, that harsh school discipline doesn’t deter bad behavior, it discourages students from staying in school and makes the work of educating U.S. kids that much harder.