Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Sanford, Fla. He was there visiting his father while suspended from school. He was suspended last month after school officials claimed to have found marijuana "residue" in his book bag. No actual contraband was found; no arrest or citations were issued by police.
When news of the suspension was leaked, Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon's mother, was understandably outraged. "They killed my son," she said, "and now they are trying to kill his reputation." But in part because the man who killed Trayvon remains uncharged and at large, the leak served mostly to shine a glaring spotlight on the racially skewed suspension policies in our public schools.
Early last month, the U.S. Department of Education released a report on school equity issues that revealed that minority students face "much harsher discipline" than whites in our public schools. African Americans were more than three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students. More than 70 percent of students arrested or handed over to law enforcement in school were black or Hispanic.
Chicago's schools rank among the worst in racial discrepancy. African-American students represented 45 percent of the Chicago Public School enrollment in 2009-10, but 76 percent of students receiving at least one out-of-school suspension that year. African-American students were five times as likely to be suspended as their white classmates.
Students from Voices of Youth in Chicago Education calculated that students lost a stunning 306,731 days of school last year due to out-of-school suspensions. VOYCE made the common sense conclusion: Public schools are too quick to suspend, particularly for nonviolent incidents, and too seldom talk out problems with students.
"We need a discipline code that works for all students, not one that sends black and Latino students a path to prison," said Victor Alquicera, a Roosevelt High School student. (The protests have had an effect, with expulsion rate dropping 43 percent compared to last year, according to school officials.)
Alquicera has it right: five- and 10-day suspensions are brutal punishments. They put kids on the street. They put them behind in class work. They label them for trouble. There is a range of positive interventions that could be done -- including personal meetings, restorative justice, classroom management and a range of in-school discipline. The vast bulk of the suspensions are for disruptive, nonviolent behavior. These are kids in need of discipline, not in need of suspension.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan admitted he was "troubled" by the data.
"The undeniable truth is that the everyday education experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise," he said. "It is our collective duty to change that."
We have moved to a multiracial society, but we have not moved beyond disparate treatment.
It is time to revisit the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; it has been noticeably absent in this crisis in Sanford. In the great legacy of Theodore Hesburgh and Mary Frances Berry, I would appeal to the president to take this opportunity to reconstruct and revitalize the commission and charge it once more with investigating discriminatory practices, rousing public concern and forcing the pace of reform.
The effort to diminish Trayvon Martin's reputation succeeds only in raising questions about whether young African-American men can gain equal protection under the law.