When the New York City Council voted earlier this week to require the New York police and schools to issue reports on the suspensions, arrests and summonses of New York students, it represented a victory for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. The uneven application of school discipline, and its effects on the educations of African-American students, is rapidly becoming a hot topic, as parent groups and even human rights groups are questioning whether zero tolerance behavioral policies disproportionately harm black students.

Damon Hewitt, the education director for the NAACP LDF, leads the organization’s Education Project, which brings together attorneys and grassroots advocates around educational issues like diversity, affirmative action, special education, and school discipline. To Hewitt, the NAACP LDF’s work on school discipline is simply an extension earlier work the organization has done on school desegregation.

“As the organization that pioneered the work leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, LDF has litigated more school desegregation cases than any other non-profit organization in the country,” Hewitt said.

“Racial disparities in school discipline have repeatedly been at issue in these court-ordered desegregation cases. Unusually severe forms of discipline and differences in treatment of students by race have long been used as both direct and indirect means of excluding African-American students from mainstream educational settings. So we see the discipline problem as being very much related to educational opportunity.”

According to Suspended Education, a September 2010 report written by Daniel J. Losen and Russell J. Skiba in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center, during the 1970s, African-Americans had a middle school suspension rate of 6 percent, which was double the rate of white students.

Today, African-American students are now over three times as likely to be suspended in school, with middle schools being the center of the controversy. In 2006, 28.3 percent of black middle school boys were being suspended, along with18 percent of black girls. This is in contrast to other racial populations like Asians, who have a suspension rate of 2.1 percent.

Matt Cregor, associate counsel at the NAACP LDF, coordinates LDF’s Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline initiative. He provides support for community-led efforts to improve school discipline and facilitates the federal advocacy of the Dignity in Schools Campaign — a national coalition of parents, students, educators and civil rights organizations – to engage Congress and the administration in support of disciplinary policies and practices that improve the learning environment and keep students engaged and in school.

“Studies show African-American students are receiving harsher punishments than their white peers for the same types of misbehavior,” said Cregor. “Students of color are disproportionately disciplined for “subjective” offenses like “disrespect” compared to their white peers.”

“There is a spectrum of reasons for these disparities,” add Hewitt. “On one hand, this harsher treatment can result from a cultural clash between students and well-intentioned educators who simply have little familiarity with black students or may be unprepared for the challenges of teaching students living in concentrated poverty. But on the other end of the spectrum African-American students, especially boys, are too often viewed as threats by the very people who are supposed to teach them.

“These perceptions are exacerbated by the cumulative toll of unmet educational needs. Imagine an African-American boy in the tenth grade. His school district is cash-poor; his classes are overcrowded; he has rarely had teachers certified in the subject matter that they were asked to teach; he has been tracked into lower level classes for years; he now reads on a seventh-grade level and has little hope of graduating, let alone going on to college. This young man would understandably feel disengaged. And the first time he presents challenging behavior he will be labeled as a “troublemaker” and before long he will find himself caught up in the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”

Marlyn Tillman is the co-founder of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline (Gwinnett STOPP) in Gwinnett, Georgia.

“We are a parent led group focused on the issues surrounding the over-disciplining, as well as the under-achievement, of students in Gwinnett County Georgia. Too many kids are labeled and pushed out, never really having the opportunity to thrive. Often, parents need help in advocating for their student’s human right to an appropriate education. I have learned through personal experience that changing policies and practice are very effective means to mitigate the school to prison pipeline. I can not sit idly by and watch this happen. Advocating for all students reaching their full educational attainment is my passion.”

Tillman first got involved with the school discipline issue when she successfully sued the Gwinnett County Public School system when her son Kyle, an honors high school student, was disciplined for not following a dress code that the courts found vague. It was her work on behalf on her son, along with the work of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that found more than 170 school disciplinary policies in Gwinnett County that were unclear, inconsistent, or vague, but could cause a student to be suspended.

Today, Gwinnett STOPP is working with local groups like NAACP Gwinnett County Branch, Georgia State Conference of NAACP, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, and the ACLU of Georgia.

“Schools are still using 1950’s methodology with 21st century kids,” said Tillman. “First, colleges should start teaching classroom management techniques on a meaningful level. How a classroom is set-up and structured can eliminate a lot of problems before they begin. Schools can use other alternatives besides throw the student out. The overwhelming majority of disciplinary infractions are for non-violent offenses. Positive behavior supports should be used as well as restorative practices, after-school detention versus suspension.”

Cregor’s research points to a correlation between the school discipline issue and the quality of education African-American students are receiving. And more disturbing, harsh disciplinary policies are proving to be an accurate predictor of future incarceration of African-Americans.

“We can’t close the “achievement gap” or improve graduation rates if we don’t cut down on exclusionary discipline. There is a wealth of research on the harms that suspension, expulsion, and school arrest can cause students. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that suspension and expulsion jeopardize children’s health and safety and may exacerbate academic failure. The Centers for Disease Control found that out-of-school youth are more likely to be retained a grade, drop out of school, become teen parents, and engage in delinquent behavior.

A 2003 study by Robert Balfanz found that school suspension is a top predictor for those students incarcerated by ninth grade. Beyond impacting those excluded, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that zero tolerance policies fail to make schools safer and that schools with high suspension rates score worse on standardized tests.”

And for Hewitt, school discipline rises to the federal level as a civil rights issue.

“Regardless of whether African-American children are the targets of intentional racism, the severe disparities in the type, severity and frequency of exclusionary discipline meted out to African-American students rise to the level of a racially disparate impact,” said Hewitt. “Both intentional discrimination and this type of disparate impact are prohibited by federal law, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Simply put, it is a violation of civil rights laws when students of color are disciplined differently than their white peers.”