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Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas E. Perez at the Civil Rights and School Discipline: Addressing Disparities to Ensure Equal Educational Opportunities Conference

September 27, 2010

Washington, D.C.

Good morning. Thank you all for joining us for this important conversation.

This conference on civil rights and school discipline is a first of its kind for us, but it is certainly not the beginning of this conversation. All of you have been invited here because of your expertise and your commitment to eliminating the School-to-Prison Pipeline. We are here to share ideas about a critical challenge facing our nation, one that has serious implications for the future of our country and our children.

The foundations of the American Dream are rooted in education. In a nation where we prize hard work and where we tout the ability of any person to climb the economic ladder, we consider education to be perhaps the single most important factor in determining future success.

This simple fact played prominently in what has become the most well-known Supreme Court decision in our nation’s history, and the one that has had the most profound effect on education for our nation’s children. In Brown v. Board of Education, Justice Warren wrote that:

“…education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments… It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship… In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

But today, more than five decades later, in schools across the country, we are seeing more and more students disrupted on their way to a diploma by increasingly harsh discipline practices for increasingly minor infractions. Students are being handed Draconian punishments for things like school uniform violations, schoolyard fights and subjective violations, such as disrespect and insubordination.

Zero-tolerance discipline policies are resulting in more suspensions and expulsions during critical years that we know impact a student’s chances of later success.

Regrettably, students of color are receiving different and harsher disciplinary punishments than whites for the same or similar infractions, and they are disproportionately impacted by zero-tolerance policies – a fact that only serves to exacerbate already deeply entrenched disparities in many communities.

The numbers tell the story. While blacks make up 17 percent of the student population, they are 37 percent of the students penalized by out-of-school suspensions and 43 percent of the students expelled. Black boys account for 9 percent of the nation’s student population, but comprise 24 percent of students suspended out of school and 30 percent of students expelled. A study written by participants in this room and released just two weeks ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that black male middle school students are suspended at three times the rate of their white counterparts. For middle school girls, while they are suspended less frequently than males, black girls were more than four times as likely to be suspended as white girls.

Moreover, others of you in this room at the Advancement Project reported that from the 2002-2003 school year to the 2006-2007 year, the number of out-of-school suspensions per black student increased by 8 percent and the number per Latino student increased by 14 percent, while the number of suspensions per white student actually decreased by 2 percent.

Not only are the numbers stark in our school systems, but while black children make up only 16 percent of this country’s juvenile population, they are 45 percent of all juvenile arrests.

On the flip side, black children only make up 4 percent of students enrolled in gifted classes and less than 3 percent enrolled in high school AP math and science.

Education should offer a lifeline to those students for whom a successful future is not predetermined. Particularly for those students in poor and historically disadvantaged communities, education should be the key that opens the door to a better future.

But instead, we see that so many students, already starting the race behind some of their peers, are being waylaid by discipline policies that rob them of their only chance for success.

In the Civil Rights Division, we are working to combat these disparities and in several instances, we are doing that with partners in this room as well as our partners at the Department of Education. Later in this conference you will hear of some of the work that we are doing and that the Department of Education is doing. While we recognize that we have a long way to go to address these problems, let me highlight a couple of our current matters.

You will hear the Educational Opportunities Section discuss Barnwell, South Carolina. There, black students were being suspended in-school an average of six times per year, while white students were being suspended an average of two times. These are not just numbers, however; these are students whose suspensions mean they are not in regular classes obtaining the education so necessary for their future success. We entered into a consent decree with the school district to address disparities in discipline, requiring the school district to enlist an outside consultant to institute discipline and classroom management techniques with the goal of keeping kids in the classroom.

In a school district in Minnesota, we learned of a racial fight involving black and white students. There, the black students were suspended while the white students were allowed to stay home “voluntarily.” While they both missed school, the white students were able to avoid the mark on their permanent record. After our involvement, these disparities for the same incident were eliminated – the black students’ suspensions were revoked.

You also will hear of investigations addressing Zero Tolerance Discipline policies that result in a disproportionate number of black students being arrested.

All of these situations are dire. Any time a person’s civil rights are violated, it is a serious concern that must be addressed. But when the violation affects a child’s education, the repercussions can be devastating and lifelong – today’s children won’t get a second chance to prepare for their futures. Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said decades ago, we must act with the “fierce urgency of now.”

And this is why we are here today – no single lawsuit or action or expert or agency can break down the School-to-Prison pipeline alone.

In the Civil Rights Division, we are in a period of restoration and transformation – I like to say that we are once again open for business. And what this means is that we are revitalizing so many areas of enforcement, but we are also reaching out to our partners to strengthen relationships that will allow us to better do our jobs.

We are very pleased that we were able to work with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to plan this conference – which is an outgrowth of a strengthened relationship. We are working together on policy development and enforcement so that we can better serve students nationwide. We share a mission to ensure that all students at every level can access a quality education on an equal basis.

And we also are pleased to have all of you as partners in this effort. We have tremendous respect for your work and your expertise, and we have invited you here so that we can gain a better understanding of what you have seen on the ground, what you have learned from it, and what you think we can most effectively do.

Eliminating the School-to-Prison Pipeline is a top priority for the Civil Rights Division and the Administration. The federal government can help bring systemic and institutional change. But we know we are only part of the equation. And for this reason, we are grateful to have you with us today. We look forward to working with you to identify all of the legal tools available to address these critical problems.

This is not merely an intellectual exercise – it is literally a matter of life and death for students of color, and for the country. Everyone in this room is here today because we are all too aware that we have crossed the line into a crisis, and it is urgent that we turn it around.

We have failed all our children – and our society – if an education becomes a pathway to prison. It is a moral imperative that education instead serves as a road to success. Unless we can address this problem, our nation’s promise of equal justice and equal opportunity will remain out of reach for far too many of our nation’s children.

General Information Office of the Assistant Attorney General
 
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Molly J. Moran
Acting Assistant Attorney General
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