Massachusetts Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Katherine Clark are urging urgent action at both the state and federal level to address the racial inequities and disparities in school discipline, sending letters Thursday to both Gov. Charlie Baker and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to press for action and answers.
The letters follow the recent release of a report by the Appleseed Network, a nonprofit group comprising independent organizations dedicated to social and legal justice, that found Black girls in Massachusetts are roughly 3.9 times more likely to be disciplined in school than white girls.
As part of a year-long research project, the nonprofit found Black girls in Massachusetts disproportionately receive punishment across the five discipline areas.
“Across the Commonwealth, the education of Black and brown students is being disrupted as a result of discriminatory and overly punitive school discipline policies that too often criminalize and push them out of school,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to Baker. “We write today to express our deep concerns regarding these racial inequities and disparities in school discipline that are plaguing our public education system and making it harder for students of color, including students with disabilities and LGBTQIA students to learn and thrive in school. We urge you to reduce these disparities and prioritize the implementation of statewide reforms that will redress these injustices and improve school climates for all students.”
In each of the letters, signed by other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, the lawmakers sent a list of individual questions, asking for answers on any underway efforts to address discrimination in school discipline.
According to the Appleseed Network, compared to their white female classmates, Black girls in the state are roughly three times more likely to be given at least one in-school suspension, five times more likely to receive at least one out-of-school suspension, five times more likely to be expelled, one-and-a-half times more likely to be referred to law enforcement, and four times more likely to have a school-related arrest.
In their report, the network also examined the disparity in school disciplinary treatment in Alabama and Kansas. The gap they found in Massachusetts was slightly higher than that found in Alabama — where Black girls are roughly 3.7 times more likely to be disciplined — and lower than Kansas, where Black girls are roughly 6.2 times more likely to be punished.
Among the recommendations from the nonprofit for addressing the racial disparities in school discipline was the implementation of more legislation like the “Ending PUSHOUT Act,” which Pressley introduced at the end of 2019. The proposed legislation would establish $2.5 billion in new federal grants to assist states and school districts that commit to banning discriminatory school discipline practices and encourages reducing the presence of law enforcement in schools.
In their letter to Baker, Pressley and Clark urged the governor to support districts “abandoning discriminatory discipline policies.”
“In this moment of national reckoning on racial justice, we must confront and uproot all forms of systemic racism, which includes school discipline practices that criminalize Black and brown students,” the Democrats wrote. “As your administration continues to address these issues, we urge you to advance reforms that protect and uplift our students of color.”
In their letter to DeVos, Pressley and Clark stressed that the Department of Education has the “full authority” to provide states and schools with the necessary resources to eliminate the problem practices.
They took aim at DeVos’s “failed leadership,” citing the department’s revoking of 2014 guidance from the Obama administration intended to reduce racial discrimination in school discipline.
“Under your watch, the Department of Education has worked tirelessly to undermine civil rights protections and encouraged harmful disciplinary practices that deprive students of color – especially Black girls – of their equal opportunity to a quality education,” Pressley and Clark wrote. “We strongly urge you to redress the disparate impact school discipline practices have on students of color and advance desperately needed reforms to allow all students to the chance to thrive and reach their fullest potential.”
The Massachusetts Democrats asked both Baker and DeVos to respond to their requests for information by Oct. 1. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, as well as Reps. Richard Neal, Jim McGovern, Stephen Lynch, Bill Keating, Joe Kennedy III, Seth Moulton, and Lori Trahan, were co-signers of the letter.
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