Holder Announces Findings Regarding Discipline of Black Students

Dorothy Rowley | 3/21/2014, 10:53 p.m.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday during a visit to J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Northeast that new information ...
Attorney General Eric Holder (right) and Education Secretary Arne Duncan chat with students at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in the District during a visit on March 21. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday during a visit to J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Northeast that new information shows early childhood is when many black students are most likely to engage in behavior that leads to suspension.

"And this data shows us that we have a long way to go to ensure that every child has access to the kind of programs offered here at J.O. Wilson," Holder said. "A great deal remains to be done to address the deficit of experience among educators who teach many of our students of color. And some of the racial disparities in the administration of school discipline that are well-documented among older students actually begin as early as preschool."

Holder, who was joined in the discussion by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, added that the data compiled by the Civil Rights Data Collection shows young black students in pre-K programs, who make up 18 percent of children enrolled in such programs, are suspended and expelled at rates three times higher than that of white children.

In addition, although boys receive more than two-thirds of suspensions, their black female counterparts are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race.

Holder said, for instance, that while African-American students made up just under one in five preschoolers enrolled during the 2011-2012 school year, they accounted for nearly half of all preschool students who faced more than one out-of-school suspension.

Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the California-based Advancement Project, which specializes in social issues affecting minority communities, told the Associated Press that she wasn't surprised to hear that younger black students were being disproportionately expelled from school.

"I think most people would be shocked that those numbers would be true in preschool, because we think of 4- and 5-year-olds as being innocent," Dianis said. "But we do know that schools are using zero tolerance policies for our youngest also, that while we think our children need a head start, schools are kicking them out instead."

Nationally, students of color were also far more likely to face referral to law enforcement and arrest and, according to the data-collection organization, they accounted for three-quarters of students with disabilities who faced disciplinary physical restraint.

“This is astonishing. It's unacceptable," Holder said. "And it's important to bear in mind, that these are not abstract statistics. This isn't a projection, a snapshot, or a rough estimate.

"So every data point represents a life impacted, a future potentially diverted or derailed, and a young man or woman who was placed at increased likelihood of becoming involved with the criminal justice system," he said.

According to the attorney general, his department's civil rights division is collaborating with school districts and states to ensure obligations are being met in alignment with federal civil rights laws.

He added that 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, the Department of Justice is working tirelessly to eradicate racial segregation and to ensure the proper accommodation of students with disabilities.

"We're vigorously enforcing laws that require school districts to support English Language Learners so they can overcome language barriers and meaningfully participate in school," Holder said. "And we're striving to reduce abusive behavior against and among students of every age and grade level – by working to protect them from threats, derogatory language, physical violence, and other forms of discriminatory harassment and bullying."

Holder said that in moving forward with the agenda to promote effective discipline and school safety, Justice Department officials will be guided by the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, which is managed by the National Institute of Justice.

In addition, Holder's department will allocate $75 million in funding for large-scale research into the causes of school violence and the most effective ways to address it in order to create a comprehensive, data-driven school safety model, tailored to individual needs.

"This data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places that are delivering on the promise of an equal education for every child and places where the largest gaps remain," Duncan said. "It is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed… [and] as the president's education budget reflects in every element — from preschool funds to Pell Grants to Title I to special education funds — this administration is committed to ensuring equity of opportunity for all."