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Pupil Placement, Suspension Analyzed

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Minority students are far more likely to be suspended and placed in classes for the mentally retarded than white students, concludes a private group in two new analyses of Education Department data.

"The two experiences that young black males are most at risk of [in school] are suspensions and placement in educable-mentally-retarded classes,'' said Joan First, director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, the Boston-based group that conducted the studies.

The studies "give us a good picture of the root causes of the high minority dropout rate,'' she said.

O.C.R. Survey Data

The analyses, which were released early this week, are based on data from the 1984 elementary- and secondary-school survey conducted by the Education Department's office for civil rights.

The OCR is required by law to collect nationwide data every two years on factors such as suspensions, corporal punishment, and educational placements by race. Shortly after the Reagan Administration took office, the OCR ceased to perform certain analyses of the data, and made only summaries of the survey findings widely available to the public.

Ms. First said the NCAS reports are intended to help fill in the gaps left by the OCR summaries. "There has been such a dearth of information about civil rights in the schools,'' she said, contending that current OCR officials "are less enthusiastic about pursuing equity issues than previous Administrations.''

Gary Curran, a spokesman for the OCR, denied the charge, saying that the department "enforces civil-rights laws vigorously,'' and will release the entire survey upon request. Mr. Curran said he did not know when or why the decision was made by department officials to forgo detailed analyses of the data.

N.C.A.S. Studies

The two new studies examine the differing rates at which white and minority students are disciplined and are placed into special-education or gifted-and-talented classes. One study compared these ratios on national, statewide, and school-district levels, and the other examined the data from the nation's 100 largest school districts.

Nationwide, the studies found, black students receive almost one-third of all school suspensions, although they represent only one-sixth of the total school population.

In the 100 largest districts, black students are twice as likely to be suspended as white students. In particular, the reports note, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Connecticut have the greatest disparity in their suspension rates for black and white students. They also found that Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania display the greatest difference in the suspension rates of white and Hispanic students.

'Friction Offenses'

Ms. First said that most suspensions are not the result of serious offenses. More often, she said, students are suspended because they do not get along with a teacher.

"The great majority of suspensions are for what we call 'friction offenses,''' she said. "The problem lies in the fact that teachers tend to overreact to the behavior of black students,'' particularly males.

"It's our inability to deal with diversity that causes these problems,'' she argued.

Ms. First said that she believes the actual total suspension rate is much higher than the survey data indicate, because the O.C.R. depends on individual schools to report their own data.

"Many schools will send a child home for the day and they won't even report that as a suspension,'' she said.

The studies also found that black and Hispanic students make up nearly half the enrollment in classes for the educable mentally retarded, and are far less likely than white students to be placed in programs for the gifted and talented.

In fact, the studies report, black children are almost three times as likely to be placed in EMR classes as white children in the 100 largest districts.

"The EMR placements are the most discriminatory thing that could possibly happen to a student in school.'' said Ms. First. She noted that children are severely limited, both educationally and vocationally, once they are placed in these classes, and have little chance of moving out of this track.

"It is socially easier for a school system to say to black parents that their child is being placed in an EMR class,'' she continued. "It's very difficult to say that to white parents.''

"It has to do with expectations, I think, with feeling whether or not the child has the potential to succeed,'' she said.

The studies also found that black and Hispanic students, who represent one-quarter of the total nationwide student population, make up only 13 percent of students enrolled in courses for the gifted and talented.

In addition, 35 percent of all students who receive corporal punishment are members of a minority group, the reports note.

Ms. First said that the current education-reform movement may lead to more disparities between white and minority students. As educational standards are raised, more students will be forced to repeat a grade, she said."There's a cumulative effect of students falling further and further behind,'' she continued. "They tend to get discouraged. Dropping out may be a logical conclusion for the youngster to reach.''

"We have a system that is now nationally less able to deal with diversity than ever before,'' Ms. First said. "It's almost as if the reform movement and demographics are on a collision course.''

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