SEATTLE — The U.S. Department of Education is investigating the high rate at which black students are disciplined in Seattle Public Schools, a problem that has plagued the district for decades.
Spokesman Jim Bradshaw confirmed Tuesday that the department’s Office of Civil Rights is looking into whether the district discriminates against black students by disciplining them more frequently and more severely than white students. The investigation, which began in May, was first reported by Seattle public radio station KUOW-FM.
Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda told The Associated Press that the district is taking steps to reduce the discrepancy in disciplinary figures and is changing training for staff to make them better aware of cultural issues.
“The fact is that we do see this as an issue and a concern,” Banda said.
According to district data, in the 2011-2012 school year, nearly 13 percent of black high school students received at least one short-term suspension. The equivalent figure for white students was just under 4 percent. In middle schools, the rate was 7 percent of white students and 27 percent of blacks.
The district has long been aware of the disparity, and recently held community meetings that addressed its discipline rates.
The investigation was instigated by the department on its own, rather than by a complaint filed by someone else, Bradshaw said.
He noted that a similar investigation into Delaware’s largest school district, the Christina School District in Wilmington, concluded that black students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race. Last December, school officials entered an agreement with the Education Department to try to fix the problem, promising to address misbehavior in ways that don’t require removal from school, collaborate with experts on preventing discrimination in discipline, and provide training for staff and administrators.
“In virtually all cases, if noncompliance is found, we’re able to reach voluntary resolution agreements to help a district or institution come into compliance with our civil rights laws,” Bradshaw wrote in an email. “Enforcement options do exist, but in nearly every case, we’re able to work with districts, short of having to resort to that option.”