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Alan Petersime

School discipline, race data prompt Ballard’s study plan

Federal data that rates Indiana one of the nation’s worst states for the disparity in discipline between black students and their classmates is strongly connected to concerns raised today by Mayor Greg Ballard about children and crime.

The goal of a study Ballard will commission is to look more closely at expulsion, suspension and dropout rates in Indianapolis schools, explore factors that influence those rates and determine why racial disparities and differences among schools exist.

The study is part of the mayor’s effort to understand how students who are put out of, or quit, school may careen toward criminal behavior under a broader effort to address the city’s growing problem of violent crime. But it also is partly a response to data released in March from the federal education and justice departments showing that American schools disproportionately discipline black students when compared to other racial and ethnic groups.

The federal data, collected during the 2011-12 school year, tracked and categorized suspension and expulsion for children as young as preschool. The findings from the Civil Rights Data Collection, which showed black children were disciplined more often nationally, held true for black students in Indianapolis and its suburbs.

The data “reveals particular concern around discipline for our nation’s young men and boys of color, who are disproportionately affected by suspensions and zero-tolerance policies in schools,” federal officials said in a statement in March. “Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again. They are also more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.”

The Equity Project at Indiana University corroborates such findings. It reports African American students are suspended two to three times more often than other students nationally. It also notes this disparity is highest in the suburbs and in elementary schools.

These notions are not new, in Indiana or across the country. A June 2000 study from the Indiana Education Policy Center focusing on 19 middle schools in an unnamed large Midwestern school district found that African American students were disproportionately represented in office referrals, suspension and expulsion. The center argues such evidence shows a systematic bias in how schools discipline black students.

In Marion County in 2013, 890 students were expelled from traditional schools, charter schools and turnaround academies, according to data provided by Ballard’s office. The most common reason for expulsion from a charter school and second most common reason in a traditional school was listed as “other.” Other common reasons included drugs, fighting and defiance.

The plan is for the Your Life Matters task force to present the findings from the commissioned study to a legislative study committee, which will explore whether changes need to be made on the state law for student discipline.