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Originally published March 5, 2013 at 8:26 PM | Page modified March 7, 2013 at 5:26 PM

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Feds probing Seattle schools’ treatment of black students

As the U.S. Department of Education investigates whether Seattle Public Schools discriminated against African-American students by disciplining them more frequently and more harshly, Superintendent José Banda promises to find solutions.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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The numbers are stark, although Seattle school administrators and many parents have been aware of them, and troubled by them, for years.

African-American students are suspended from school more than three times as often as white students from elementary schools to high schools.

More than one-fourth of black middle schoolers have received short-term suspensions every year since 1996. Native Americans are disciplined more often than Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Now the U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether Seattle Public Schools discriminates against African Americans by disciplining them “more frequently and more harshly than similarly situated white students,” department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said Tuesday.

The “compliance review” began in May but didn’t become public knowledge until it was reported Tuesday by KUOW radio.

District Superintendent José Banda acknowledged problems with student discipline — and said he intends to do something about them.

Banda pledged cooperation with the investigation and said he expects the Department of Education will find disproportionate disciplining of black students.

“I think we have a serious problem here,” Banda said. “We do. We acknowledge that. We acknowledge the fact that the data is clear that there is a disproportionate number of students of color being suspended and expelled.

“It’s something that we’re moving on, in addition to working with the Department of Education, who are conducting their own review,” he said.

Seattle Public Schools has set up two advisory committees — one called Positive Climate and Discipline, the other Equity and Race — that are studying disproportionality in discipline.

Banda said he didn’t know how long the federal compliance review will take, and the Department of Education’s Bradshaw declined to provide additional information.

In September the department settled its first discipline-related compliance case in years when it reached an agreement with California’s Oakland Unified School District.

Oakland school officials agreed to avoid suspensions or expulsions as much as possible; to collaborate with experts to create positive, nondiscriminatory school climates; to give more help to at-risk students; to revise discipline policies; and to survey students, staff members and families each year.

James Bible, president of the Seattle-King County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, welcomed the federal investigation, saying uneven treatment of races is “so deeply embedded in the fabric of this particular school district, and perhaps others in our region, that it’s absolutely necessary for outside entities to intervene.

“I think that until we have true transparency and something in place in terms of the outside looking in, we’re not going to see much in terms of change here,” Bible said.

Doug Honig, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said the group is concerned about the 50,000 students suspended or expelled in the state each year, both because of racial disparities and because too many of those students receive no education while they’re being punished.

“In effect, the suspension or expulsion can put them so far behind in schoolwork that it becomes an educational death sentence,” Honig said.

About two years ago, Seattle’s School Board asked to see statistics on expulsions.

“Those numbers showed us we had a growing problem,” said board President Kay Smith-Blum. “They showed a disproportionate amount of students being disciplined at the suspension or expulsion level in our minority groups.”

Banda and several board members said discipline policies should be clear and consistent and should, in most cases, provide a way for students to continue their studies even if they are removed from their regular classrooms.

“The goal should be, obviously, to get every kid in school so that we can teach them. It’s hard to teach a student who’s not in school,” said board member Harium Martin-Morris.

Board member Marty McLaren said she wants to shut down the “schools-to-prison pipeline” that can begin with inappropriate discipline.

Several board members and a district spokeswoman said they weren’t aware of the federal investigation, which began last year. “I just became aware of that myself,” Banda said.

The district’s new attorney, Modessa Jacobs, recently told other district officials the Department of Education was requesting district data as part of its review.

Stephanie Alter Jones, a Seatle school parent and a community organizer in Southeast Seattle, said that while she wasn’t aware of the investigation, discipline has been a topic of much debate both in Seattle and in the Legislature.

Kids who are tossed from the classroom are often “the ones most in need of the education,” she said.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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