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Investigation finds racial disparity in school discipline

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    Boston, MA (WBZ) — An investigation by the WBZ-TV I-Team into student discipline in Massachusetts public schools found that, in many cases, students of color are suspended at much higher rates than their white peers.

It’s an issue Marcus Leitch’s family knows well. Other than shooting hoops with his older brother, the Norwood 15-year-old doesn’t get out much. Since being suspended from Norwood High School this year, his mom says he has been withdrawn and depressed.

“I don’t know what to do for him,” said Kerry Sullivan. “He’s not the same child and it infuriates me.”

Back in January, Marcus and a few of his friends got into a hallway fight with another student they say was bullying them.

“They allowed me to watch the video. It was just seconds,” Sullivan said, describing the fight where she admits Marcus did throw two punches.

Marcus, who had no prior disciplinary problems at school, said he knows other kids who have gotten into fights at school and he knew he would be facing some discipline.

“Probably like two days suspension,” is what he said he expected.

But when Sullivan received a letter with the punishment, she said she couldn’t believe it.

“Marcus got a 90-day suspension! I was shocked. 90 days? I thought maybe the most a week.”

Not knowing what to do, she contacted Kathy Reddick, an education advocate and the former head of the Cambridge chapter of the NAACP.

“I thought it was shameful,” Reddick said, when she first learned of the facts of the case. Reddick, who helped Sullivan appeal the case, said that this is not that unusual.

“Unfortunately, we see a lot of disparities. We see students of color, Black and Latino students who end up being punished at a much more drastic level.”

The most recent data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education appears to show some evidence of racial bias in school discipline.

A sampling of records reviewed by the I-Team found the rate of out-of-school suspensions in Arlington is 2.8% for Black students and .7% for white students. In Barnstable 4.9% of Black students received out of school suspensions, while only 2% of white students were kept out of class. In Boston it’s 5.3% for Black students and 1.2% for white. And in Norwood the rate of out-of-school suspensions for Black students is 6.5% and 1.5% for white kids.

In an audio recording of Marcus’s appeal hearing obtained by the I-Team, Sullivan raised her concerns to Superintendent Dr. David Thomson.

“Your school district has a problem with race and you don’t know how to deal with it,” she told him. Thomson told Sullivan that all protocols were followed.

“Do you feel like that was harsh? Would you have done the same thing?” she asked referring to the principal’s 90-day suspension.

“I have to weigh the evidence,” Thomson replied.

In the end, Marcus’s suspension was reduced to less than 30 days. But his mom worries about the long term scars of what she calls discrimination.

“How do you recover from something that doesn’t stop happening? It’s a wound that never heals,” she said.

We reached out to Superintendent Thomson several times. He did not respond to our requests for an interview or comment.

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