Feds Probing Seattle Schools’ Treatment of Black Students

Keith Ervin and Maureen O’Hagan, Seattle Times, March 5, 2013

As the U.S. Department of Education investigates whether Seattle Public Schools discriminated against African-American students by disciplining them more frequently and more harshly, Superintendent José Banda promises to find solutions.

The numbers are stark, although Seattle school administrators and many parents have been aware of them, and troubled by them, for years.

African-American students are suspended from school more than three times as often as white students from elementary schools to high schools.

More than one-fourth of black middle schoolers have received short-term suspensions every year since 1996. Native Americans are disciplined more often than Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Now the U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether Seattle Public Schools discriminates against African Americans by disciplining them “more frequently and more harshly than similarly situated white students,” department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said Tuesday.

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Banda pledged cooperation with the investigation and said he expects the Department of Education will find disproportionate disciplining of black students.

“I think we have a serious problem here,” Banda said. “We do. We acknowledge that. We acknowledge the fact that the data is clear that there is a disproportionate number of students of color being suspended and expelled.

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Seattle Public Schools has set up two advisory committees—one called Positive Climate and Discipline, the other Equity and Race—that are studying disproportionality in discipline.

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In September the department settled its first discipline-related compliance case in years when it reached an agreement with California’s Oakland Unified School District.

Oakland school officials agreed to avoid suspensions or expulsions as much as possible; to collaborate with experts to create positive, nondiscriminatory school climates; to give more help to at-risk students; to revise discipline policies; and to survey students, staff members and families each year.

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About two years ago, Seattle’s School Board asked to see statistics on expulsions.

“Those numbers showed us we had a growing problem,” said board President Kay Smith-Blum. “They showed a disproportionate amount of students being disciplined at the suspension or expulsion level in our minority groups.”

Banda and several board members said discipline policies should be clear and consistent and should, in most cases, provide a way for students to continue their studies even if they are removed from their regular classrooms.

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