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A new study of large school systems shows that the racial gap in the punishment of students is similar to the disparities found in the criminal justice system for adults. Data from the Department of Education show that African-american students are suspended or "referred" to law enforcement by school officials far more often that white students, even with in the same school. (Referred does not always mean arrested or cited, but merely that outside authorities were called in to deal with an on-campus problem.)

In a more focused analysis of school systems with more than 50,000 students enrolled, the data showed that African American students represented 24 percent of enrollment but 35 percent of arrests. White students accounted for 31 percent of enrollment and 21 percent of arrests. For Hispanic students, there was less of a disparity in arrests. They accounted for 34 percent of enrollment and 37 percent of arrests.

Officials caution that there are many possible explanations for the disparity, such as poverty and access to the best classes and teachers. But one implication of the study is the pattern of racial difference in the courts and in prison begins at the school level. According to the NAACP, a student who is arrested is twice as likely to drop out, which can lead to more legal troubles and more arrests later in life. Black people make up just 12 percent of the U.S. population, but make up nearly 40 percent of our prison population. The study also shows a rise in the level of law enforcement's presence on campuses as more schools adopted zero-tolerance policies and in the last decade.

The same study also showed that black students were more likely to be held back, particularly in earlier grades. There may not be a direct correlation between the two, but its clear the achievement gap and punishment gap are both serious issues that still exist in our schools.

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This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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