WASHINGTON -- A hearing on racial disparities in school discipline found enough evidence of possible discrimination to persuade a government panel to look further. The Clinton administration contended the evidence failed to prove actions against black pupils resulted from racism.
Education Department figures show that for the 1997 school year, black children made up 17 percent of U.S. students but 32 percent of those suspended. Hispanics comprised 14 percent of students and 13.5 percent of those suspended.
Whites accounted for 63 percent of students and 51 percent of those suspended.
''A numerical disparity does not by itself prove discrimination,'' Norma Cantu, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, told a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The panel's chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, who convened Friday's hearing on whether blacks and the disabled are discriminated against, differed in her reading of the day's findings.
''This turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg,'' Berry said. ''All of the commissioners support safe schools. No one wants to see guns in school.
''But there is clearly evidence that, by and large, black students are expelled for things like talking back to a teacher or talking in a loud voice -- nothing associated with violence -- when other children are not.''
The commissioners heard testimony from more than a dozen government officials, educators and civil rights advocates on the growing use in schools of policies designed to allow zero tolerance of indiscipline among students. Berry said the commission will decide at its March meeting whether to hold more formal hearings or ask advisory panels in each state to take up the issue.
In the same way mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike sentencing laws have been used widely as no-nonsense ways to battle crime, zero tolerance policies in schools have grown since the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act passed.
Cantu said wide racial disparities exist in the numbers of children disciplined under zero tolerance but insisted that does not necessarily mean racism is at work in the programs, as critics like Jesse Jackson contend.
Disproportionately high suspension rate for black students predates the new policies and goes back as far as the middle 1970s, she said.
Last year, Jackson brought the issue to national attention by defending six black teenagers expelled for up to two years as the result of a bleacher-clearing fight at a football game in Decatur, Ill.
He called the policy ''an ugly, expensive, uneducational failure,'' the biggest civil rights issue facing the country.
After Jackson's intervention, Decatur's school board cut the expulsions to a year and let the six students attend alternative schools.
Early evidence suggests zero tolerance discipline might help reduce the number of guns students carry to school.
In the 1996-97 school year, 5,724 students were expelled for bringing firearms to school. That number fell 31 percent to 3,930 the next year, said William Modzeleski, director of the Education Department's Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program.
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