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By Eric Stirgus June 10, 2013

Do numbers show black students are disciplined at higher rates?

In the 1960s, John Lewis marched for racial equality. Lewis, now a veteran congressman from Atlanta, recently used another approach to voice his criticism concerning what he sees as another form of racial injustice.

Lewis, a Democrat, co-wrote an op-ed that focused on his belief that African-Americans are being treated unfairly in the criminal justice system. The problem starts early, wrote Lewis and Bryan Stevenson, who teaches law at New York University.

"Black children constitute 18 percent of the nation's public school population but 40 percent of the children who are suspended or expelled," they wrote.

PolitiFact Georgia read the op-ed and wondered about the statistics they used to back up their argument. Are 40 percent of students suspended or expelled in America’s public schools black?

We recently examined another statement in their op-ed that claimed the violent crime rate in America was the same since 1968, but the prison system had grown by 500 percent. We rated that statement Half True.

Brenda Jones, a spokeswoman for Lewis, said Stevenson culled the information from a U.S. Department of Education online warehouse of school suspensions and expulsions. Jones said they relied on a 2009-2010 survey to come up with the numbers and a 2012 Children’s Defense Fund report on the subject.

"The results from the schools surveyed show public school systems where Black students represented 18 percent of students but 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of those expelled," Jones said in one email.

U.S. Department of Education researchers looked at 85 percent of the nation’s public school students in some 72,000 schools in a widely publicized report released in March 2012. They found although black students made up 18 percent of the nation’s public school population, they accounted for 35 percent of students suspended at least once and 39 percent of students expelled.

The study also examined student readiness for college and careers, retention, and other issues.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the findings highlighted the need for educators to address the disparities.

"The power of the data is not only in the numbers themselves, but in the impact it can have when married with the courage and the will to change. The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise," said Duncan, who is white. "It is our collective duty to change that."

The Children’s Defense Fund cited the Education Department study in a 2013 report on how many Mississippi public school students ended up in prison, writing that 38 percent of students suspended nationwide were African-Americans.

Some critics of the report complained Duncan and much of the news media focused exclusively on black students and wrongly assumed that the disproportionate percentage of those students being suspended or expelled was a result of institutional racism.

"The feds have reached their conclusions, however, without answering the obvious question: Are black students suspended more often because they misbehave more?" Heather MacDonald, a well-known author, commentator and columnist who is white, wrote shortly after the report was released.

We found plenty of debate over the rationale for the higher percentage of black students suspended or expelled in that report. Again, we were focused on whether the statistics used to make the claim were accurate. We continued our research by looking at past studies to see whether the numbers in that report were a one-time spike.

In a 2006 federal study, black students made up 37.4 percent of those suspended from school. White students were slightly ahead, accounting for 39.1 percent of those suspended. About 20 percent of the students suspended were Hispanic.

Black students made up about 38 percent of expulsions in one category and 42.5 percent of expulsions in another category, the 2006 report showed.

Our conclusion:

Lewis co-wrote that black students make up 18 percent of the students in America’s public schools but 40 percent of students who are suspended or expelled. The percentage of the U.S. student population is accurate, while the percentage of black students suspended or expelled is pretty close to the mark.

We rate this statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

Berkeley Daily Planet, "The State of Equality and Justice in America: The Presumption of Guilt," May 17, 2013.

Children’s Defense Fund, "Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline: Preventing Pushouts in Mississippi Schools," 2013.

City Journal, "Undisciplined: The Obama administration undermines classroom order in pursuit of phantom racism," Summer 2012.

Emails from Brenda Jones, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. John Lewis, May 24 and 30, 2013

PolitiFact Georgia, "John Lewis uses crime and prison stats to push for justice system changes," June 7, 2013.

U.S. Education Department news release on Office of Civil Rights study, March 6, 2012.

2006 U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection page.

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