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The U.S. Department of Education announced Friday that it has reached a major agreement with school officials in Oakland, Calif. that allows federal monitoring of the district’s efforts to curb out-of-school suspensions of its African American students.

“This is not about blame,” said Russlynn Ali, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights. In a Friday conference call with reporters, Ali said the purpose of her office’s drive to reform school discipline “to keep students in class, and to ensure they keep learning.”

A May report by the Urban Strategies Council, an Oakland community-organizing and research group, drilled down on Oakland’s record of suspensions. Researchers found that African American boys were only 17 percent of the Oakland Unified School District’s population but 42 percent of all suspensions. Black males were suspended at six times the rate of white boys across the district in the 2010-2011 school year.

The Urban Strategies Council also found that among black male students suspended multiple times, 44 percent were removed from school solely for the infraction of “defiance of authority.” The district in 2010-2011 lost tens of thousands of dollars in “daily attendance” money from government sources because students were out on suspension.

Ali’s office began investigating Oakland Unified’s suspension rates after the report was released. So far this fiscal year, Ali told reporters Friday, her office has received more than 560 complaints of alleged discipline-related rights abuses from individuals across the nation. These include complaints that students have been disproportionately affected by discipline policies — which include removal from school — due to their gender, ethnicity or disability. The office is also investigating 19 cases of districts or communities where students’ civil rights are at stake because of school policies.

But the Oakland district’s administrators had already started developing plans to improve graduation rates and institute alternatives to escalating suspensions. Research is increasing showing that suspensions interrupt learning, often fail to address the root causes of behavior and can result in students becoming less engaged in school, not more.

Because Oakland is voluntarily moving ahead with its own reforms, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is closing its investigation and will monitor the district’s progress.

Oakland’s voluntary resolution plan promises district-wide training, and the spread of alternative and tested ways to deal with misbehavior.

Ali said Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Tony Smith showed “courage” in moving ahead with reforms. She said the federal government doesn’t want to “dictate” how communities carry out their ideas for reforms to avoid civil rights violations. Smith said it was “unacceptable” to have so many Oakland students suspended for defiance. Under the new plan, he said, teachers will have to describe the circumstances that led them to oust a student for defiance.

Smith said Oakland is actively tackling a serious dropout problem among African American boys, in part with the district’s two-year-old African American Male Achievement Initiative. “The waste of so much human potential is unacceptable, not just in Oakland but across the country,” Smith said.

Last year, the district’s graduation rate improved — but is still less than 59 percent and below the state average. The year before, detailed data by ethnicity showed, only 47 percent of African American boys in the Oakland district graduated. Chronic absences, including suspensions, drive many black male students off course in school when they are very young, argues the Urban Strategies Council.

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Susan Ferriss joined CPI in 2011 and directs its immigration project. As a Cox Newspapers Latin America...