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Friday, September 30, 2011 - 12:30pm

Schools Punish Blacks More Harshly

Georgia's black students are twice as likely than white students to be suspended from school.

A group is meeting in Savannah this weekend on what some are calling a "pipeline" from suspensions to incarceration.

African-American groups long have complained that black students receive harsher punishment than whites for violating the same non-violent and non-drug-related school rules that whites violate -- creating a cycle that leads to higher dropout rates and crime.

A landmark Texas study confirmed their complaints.

The study, "Breaking Schools' Rules," took poverty into account and highlighted the discretion that school officials have in discipline choices for minor offenses like truancy, improper dress and using cell phones.

Michael Thompson, Director of the New York-based Justice Center for the Council of State Governments, says, it's important for state policy-makers to base their decisions on something more concrete than anecdotal evidence.

"You need to have actual data that explains what's going on in an imperical way," Thompson says. "The reason why we're looking at this issue is to figure out how to help teachers do their job."

Like other conference-goers, Thompson acknowledges that teachers have a hard job keeping classrooms safe and focused on learning.

But he decries the educational opportunities lost when students are taken out of class and put in suspension -- sometimes at empty homes.

Georgia students as a whole lose 1.7 million teaching days a year to suspensions.

Marlyn Tillman, co-founder of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline, says, "zero tolerance" policies don't work.

"It isn't just the bad kids," Tillman says. "I think we go back to that cultural competancy."

Tillman says, African-Americans, and especially black males, are singled out for harsher punishment in part because of outmoted ideas and in part because school officials aren't aware of alternatives to punitive disciplinary measures.

"We need more support for our teachers," Tillman says. "Our teaching methodologies have not changed."

Conference-goers watched a demonstration of how school officials could respond to a classroom fight with "restorative justice" techniques instead of suspension or expulsion.

About 200 people are attending the conference on discipline disparities between races and genders.

The meeting is organized by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Savannah-based African Male Achievement group.

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