Linda Chavez
With much ballyhoo, the Obama administration announced this week that it will keep a close eye on school districts that discipline minority students at higher rates than whites. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan held a joint press conference to release a "Dear Colleague" letter to school districts issuing guidance on school discipline that will likely encourage districts to make race a significant factor in deciding how to administer punishment. Of course, Holder and Duncan claim their intention is to ensure nondiscrimination in school disciplinary procedures -- but the guidelines they've offered will result in exactly the opposite.

Black and Hispanic students, on average, experience higher rates of school suspensions and other serious disciplinary actions -- there is little doubt or debate on that score. A Washington Post study last year found that in the D.C. region, black students were far more likely to be suspended from school than whites or Asians. In Montgomery County, a suburban Maryland district just outside of Washington, 6 percent of black students were either suspended or expelled from school the previous year, while only 1.2 percent of white students suffered the same punishment. The most recent national school suspension statistics available show that some 15 percent of blacks, 7 percent of Hispanics, 5 percent of whites and 3 percent of Asians are suspended at some point in their school life.

But the real question is: Why? If black and Hispanic students engage in behavior that is punishable by suspension at higher rates than whites or Asians, then we shouldn't be surprised that their punishment rates are higher, as well. On the other hand, if behaviors don't differ or if black students who commit the same infractions as whites receive harsher treatment, discrimination is likely the cause.

Unfortunately, the DOJ and DOE guidelines go far beyond discouraging actual racial discrimination. In essence, what the Obama administration wants school districts to do is guarantee that minority students don't experience higher rates of suspension or other serious punishments for disciplinary infractions. It is certainly laudable to try to bring down suspension rates for black and Hispanic students -- but there are right and wrong ways to go about it, and the Obama administration has chosen the worst way.


Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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