Minority students in Aiken, Columbia, Richmond county schools face harsher punishments

WASHINGTON — More than 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or cases referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black, according to a Department of Education report that raises questions about whether students of all races are disciplined evenhandedly in U.S. schools.

Black students are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled, according to an early snapshot of the report released to reporters. The findings come from a national collection of civil rights data from 2009-10 of more than 72,000 schools serving 85 percent of the nation.

Data released Tuesday afternoon show that trend holds in Augusta-area school districts. In Richmond County, where 76 percent of the students were black in the 2009-10 school year, 100 percent of those expelled – 35 – were black.

In Columbia County, which had 17 percent black student enrollment that year, 29 percent of those expelled were black. In Aiken County, with black student enrollment of 34 percent, 58 percent of those expelled were black.

“The sad fact is that minority students across America face much harsher discipline than non-minorities, even within the same school,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters.

Duncan said some school officials might not have been aware of inconsistencies in how they handle discipline, and he hoped the report would be an eye-opener.

Raul Gonzalez, the legislative director at the National Council of La Raza who taught school in New York, said “zero tolerance” policies in both schools and the court system disproportionately affect black and Hispanic kids. He said the policies have created a system that takes kids out of school and ultimately leads them into prison where they become hardened criminals. He said more moderate responses are needed in schools, and he hopes that the report will lead to a change in policies in schools and in state laws.

“We’ve lost control of all judgment here, and it’s almost always a black kid or a Hispanic kid” affected, Gonzalez contended.

According to the Education report, 42 percent of the referrals to law enforcement involve black students and 29 percent involved Hispanics, while 35 percent of students involved in school-related arrests were black and 37 percent were Hispanic.

Black students made up 18 percent of the students in the sample, but they were 35 percent of students suspended once and 39 percent of students expelled, the report said.

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