a police officer stands in a school hallway. Two students stand behind him out of focus. The viewer can see the items on his belt like keys, mace, and his holster.
A school resource officer patrols the high school where he is stationed in Virginia. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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Two U.S. agencies are urging school districts “to confront the issue of race discrimination in student discipline,” releasing a report highlighting federal investigations that found evidence of bias in school policing over the past decade.

“Discrimination in student discipline forecloses opportunities for students, pushing them out of the classroom and diverting them from a path to success in school and beyond,” the departments of education and justice wrote in a joint letter. “Significant disparities by race — beginning as early as preschool — have persisted in the application of student discipline in schools.”

Center for Public Integrity investigations have shown that federal enforcement merely scratches the surface of widespread concerns with law enforcement presence on campus.

And a closer look at the data reveals that problems seemingly persist even after federal investigations.

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the U.S. Department of Justice found evidence to support complaints that Wicomico County Public Schools discriminated against Black and Latino students and students with disabilities. The Justice Department investigation concluded that staff over-relied on school resource officers to address routine classroom management issues. Black students and students with disabilities were overrepresented in the incidents. Black and Latino students, meanwhile, received “harsher” consequences than white students but were not misbehaving in more serious ways, according to the Justice Department.

The school district, while not admitting violations, signed a settlement agreement in early 2017 that it would address these issues.

The following school year, Black students were referred to law enforcement at three times the rate of their white peers, Public Integrity’s analysis shows. Law enforcement referral rates for students with disabilities remained disproportionately high.

Under the agreement, the Justice Department required the district to submit semi-annual reports to the agency until the end of the 2019 school year, demonstrating its efforts to comply with the agreement.

A Justice Department spokesman said the agency closely monitors compliance with settlement agreements.

“The Department’s settlements also provide for enforcement if school districts do not comply with their obligations under the agreement or federal law,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement to Public Integrity.

The agency did not say if action was taken in the Wicomico County schools case. The district declined an interview request.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found evidence to support complaints that the East Side Union High School District in San Jose, California, discriminated against Latino students in discipline incidents. School resource officers in the district ticketed Latino students at more than twice the rate of white students during the 2013-14 school year, often for minor infractions that officers had the discretion not to cite, the investigation found.

The district did not respond to requests for comment. Like Wicomico County, it had entered into a settlement in which it did not admit violations but agreed to make changes.

As part of the settlement, the East Side Union High School District agreed that Office for Civil Rights staff could interview staff and students and request additional reports and data to ensure compliance. The settlement also required the district to appoint a committee to review student discipline data by race twice annually during the 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years.

During that first year, Latino students in that school system were nearly five times as likely to be referred to by law enforcement as white students, the Public Integrity analysis showed. 

The Education Department did not respond to questions about how it monitors districts after settlements are signed.

Public Integrity’s analysis of federal data for the 2021 “Criminalizing Kids” investigation found that law enforcement referrals in schools disproportionately affect Black children and, in some states, Native American and Latino children. In 31 states and the District of Columbia, Black students were referred to law enforcement at more than twice the rate of white students, the Public Integrity analysis found.

A referral occurs when a school employee reports a student to any law enforcement agency or officer, including a school police officer, for an incident at school or during a school-related event.

Under federal law, all arrests are referrals, but not all referrals lead to arrests. Citations, tickets and court referrals are also considered referrals to law enforcement.

School districts investigated by the federal government for discriminatory school policing agreed in settlements to make changes correcting the alleged problems, such as mandating anti-bias training for school resource officers and establishing processes where students and parents can file complaints when they suspect they’ve been discriminated against.

The federal report urged districts to examine their internal data to evaluate whether they violate students’ civil rights and cited several cases resolved over the past two school years. The letter to schools emphasized that racial discrimination in student discipline continues to be “a significant concern.”

Last August, the Office for Civil Rights resolved an investigation that found evidence that school police officers in the Victor Valley High School District in southern California disproportionately issued citations to Black students.

After the settlement, the Victor Valley High School District thanked the Office for Civil Rights for “raising important issues and for working with us to find solutions to these systemic problems,” according to a statement provided to the Victorville Daily Press

“Even before the conclusion of the OCR analysis,” the statement added, “the district began taking steps to increase equity for our students.”

In the Davis School District in Farmington, Utah, the Justice Department determined in 2021 that Black students faced discrimination in law enforcement referrals. The investigation also found evidence that the district routinely ignored concerns from Asian and Black students and parents about racial disparities in discipline.

“The district takes these findings very seriously,” the Davis School District said in a statement released after the Justice Department settlement. “They do not reflect the values of this community and the expectations of the district. The district pledges to correct these practices.”

Neither district responded to requests for comment for this story.

Some school systems cited in the report, including the Minneapolis Public Schools, decided to remove law enforcement. The districts were among those defunding school police after George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered in Minneapolis by a white police officer in May 2020.

The East Side Union High district also removed police from schools in 2020, canceled its $700,000 contract with local law enforcement and used the funds to hire social workers and expand student mental health services.

But some of those changes have been short-lived. Across the country, districts are reversing those decisions amid concerns about rising violence in and around schools.

In Wicomico County, Maryland, the district has doubled down on the presence of law enforcement. Officials want to add more funding for resource officers for the upcoming school year.

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Corey Mitchell is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. He writes about racial, gender...