Washington Post, June 15, 2000, 2000

Group Finds Racial Disparity in Schools' 'Zero Tolerance'
By Kenneth J. Cooper

It started with one peanut, flung in close quarters on a school bus. Soon peanuts were flying back and forth as the 40 teenage passengers, laughing, went about their raucous, risky play. Then somebody misfired and hit the bus driver, who swerved abruptly, braked to a halt and flagged down a patrol car.

The entire busload of students was hauled to the county courthouse and threatened with arrest. But the next day, only five African American boys were charged with assault, slapped with a two-week suspension and banned for a year from riding the bus to their rural high school more than 20 miles away.

One boy's mother, juggling work and child care responsibilities, drove him to school. The rest had no other transportation. They dropped out.

The Mississippi peanut-throwing incident is cited in a new report that suggests that "zero tolerance" policies have exacerbated a long-standing pattern of black students being suspended and expelled from school more frequently than white students. That disparity has persisted for at least 25 years, though no national study has ever conclusively shown racial discrimination to be the cause.

The report, scheduled for release today by the Advancement Project, an advocacy group led by civil rights lawyers, contends that school administrators have used zero tolerance policies to punish black and Latino students more strictly than they might have previously.

The authors suggest serious sanctions have been used even when misbehavior falls far short of weapon or drug possession, the dangers the tough new policies were intended to address.

The report acknowledges that white students also have been disciplined more harshly under zero-tolerance policies and includes examples of how individual white students have been affected.

But based on an analysis of federal statistics for 1996-97, the authors determined that "zero tolerance policies are more likely to exist in predominantly black and Latino school districts."

For example, 85 percent of predominantly minority districts had zero tolerance for acts of violence such as fighting, while 71 percent of mostly white districts had similar policies.

"This disparity in the adoption of zero tolerance policies may also account for some of the racial disparities (at least on a national level) in disciplinary actions taken," the report suggests.

The Education Department yesterday released national statistics that showed blacks, who comprise 17 percent of the nation's students, made up 33 percent of the students suspended in 1998. The department also released the first official statistics on expulsion rates, which showed that 31 percent of the students kicked out of school were black.

"The disparity in expulsions is pretty much the same as the disparity in suspensions," said Raymond C. Pierce, deputy assistant secretary for civil rights. "It's still a matter of concern."

Zero tolerance policies were initiated a decade ago to expel students caught with illegal drugs, then expanded under a 1994 federal law to apply to students with guns.

The policies have become controversial in some places after students were disciplined for possessing nail clippers, pocket knives, scissors and other items school officials believed could be used as weapons.

Some states have gone beyond guns and drugs, with disruptive behavior or defiance of school authority being lawful grounds for expulsion in 10 states, according to a survey conducted by the Advancement Project, whose leaders formerly worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

They said that such offenses are often vaguely defined and that school officials have at times used their discretion to sternly discipline black students for relatively minor infractions. The report cites the example of a Mississippi girl in the fourth grade who was suspended twice for defying authority--once for humming and tapping on her desk and a second time for talking back to her teacher.

In East Baton Rouge, La., a black ninth-grader was expelled for a year because her book bag contained sparklers, a nonexplosive firework she had used over the weekend and forgotten to remove, according to the report.

Penda D. Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, said such disciplinary actions have been particularly common in southern states and appear to be intended to "keep a new generation of African Americans subordinate by training African Americans to be submissive from kindergarten on."

In South Carolina, one of 11 states that require record-keeping on disciplinary actions to be broken down by race, black students made up 42 percent of enrollment statewide in 1998 but accounted for 69 percent of students accused of "disturbing schools."

The disparity didn't extend to more serious and better-defined offenses committed in the state: Whites were accused of drug violations twice as often as blacks and of gun-related charges with the same frequency.

Bill Modzelewski, the Education Department's safe schools director, agreed that zero tolerance policies have been stretched beyond their original purposes in some states. He suggested that disrespectful behavior such as talking back to a teacher should be handled in school, not with suspensions. But he declined to criticize the broad policies in general.

"For the most part, we are talking about community standards. What's done in Washington, D.C., can and should be different from what's done in Fargo, North Dakota," Modzelewski said.

At Montgomery County High School in the Mississippi delta region, Principal Jimmy Pittman said the five boys who threw the peanuts deserved to lose their bus privileges--even if it meant that four of them could no longer attend school.

"I'm very satisfied with the way we handled that," Pittman said. "They posed such a threat to the school bus driver. Those students put a lot of innocent kids' lives in jeopardy. . . . It was a dangerous situation."

Ersie Jackson acknowledged that her son, Delrintus Eden, had done wrong but argued it was unfair for the school to cause him to drop out for lack of transportation.

"I was begging this white man [Pittman] to let my child back on the bus," said Jackson, who lives in tiny Duck Hill. "He said, 'No, wait until next year.' "

2000 The Washington Post Company


Return to Newsroom Index or to Table of Contents