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Originally published Sunday, September 23, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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It’s time for a moratorium on school suspensions

To get more students to graduate from high school, we should put a moratorium on school suspensions, writes editorial columnist Lynne K. Varner.

Times editorial columnist

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It’s time to take action to confront low graduation rates, particularly among black male students.

Last year was the first year that more than half of America’s black male students graduated from high school on time. The Schott Foundation for Public Education reports that only 52 percent of black males and 58 percent of Latino male ninth-graders graduate from high school in four years, while 78 percent of white male ninth-graders do so.

Let’s build on the momentum of last year’s improvement and get our kids walking out of school with a diploma instead of empty-handed.

Across the board, graduation rates are not where they should be. We should push for a graduation rate of at least 90 percent. But for kids of color, the low rates are devastating in terms of lost potential.

A thoughtful approach to raising graduating rates would take a hard look at school discipline and suspension rates. Schools push out too many black and Latino boys and young men under the excuse of strict discipline.

Too often the kids getting suspended are poor and facing huge challenges at home. They tend to be the ones who can least afford to miss school.

It is not unreasonable to expect good behavior in class. Indeed it is the only way to ensure strong teaching and learning. But showing students the door is taking the easy way out. It locks those students out of an education system that is supposed to prepare them to compete in a 21st-century economy.

Writing off half of our students of color echoes Mitt Romney writing off half of America.

My sentiments are shared by Schott researchers in “The Urgency of Now: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males.”

Schott identifies many culprits for lagging graduation rates, including poverty, but the disproportionately high rate of suspensions among kids of color is a factor we can do something about right now.

It’s time to put a moratorium on suspensions in favor of other strategies, such as in-school detention.

We should do it for academic reasons, and we should do it for moral ones. Suspensions tracked by the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights office show clear racial disparities.

Discipline is not meted out equally or fairly in our schools.

A study of Seattle Public Schools found that kids of color faced disciplinary measures, including suspensions, at rates three and four times higher than rates for white kids, even for the same infraction.

That jibes with what federal education investigators found when analyzing national disciplinary statistics. Black and Hispanic kids do not misbehave any more than other kids, but they are punished more frequently, and more severely.

Part of rethinking discipline is acknowledging that behavorial problems are often linked to academic struggles. Instead of suspending them, let’s explore individual education plans for students, intervention such as tutoring, mental health and health care, and mentoring so they can catch up in school.

I’ve always thought all kids should have individualized learning plans similar to the ones required by federal law for special-education students. Nothing holds students, their parents and the school accountable like a written contract.

Supporters of zero-tolerance policies will accuse me of going soft on discipline. Before fears set in that kids will run amok unchallenged in our schools, let’s remember the goal is not to eliminate discipline, but carry it out in a more effective, non-biased way. A moratorium on suspensions will give us time to figure out how to do it.

Read the Schott Foundation’s full report at:

<em></em>Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner.

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