By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE, March 7 (Reuters) - The U.S. Education Department is investigating whether Seattle's public school district discriminates against black students by subjecting them to tougher and more frequent discipline than white students, agency and district officials said.
The inquiry, launched in May 2012, is focusing in part on the district's own statistics showing that African-American high school students are suspended or expelled more than three times as often as other students, school officials said on Wednesday.
In middle school, the racial disparity is greater, with blacks 3 1/2 times more likely to be disciplined than other students, according to district data shared with Reuters.
More than a quarter of all black middle school pupils have received short-term suspensions in any given year since at least the 2006-07 academic year, compared with 7.4 percent or less annually for white students, the data shows.
African-Americans represent just over 20 percent of the 12,500 high school students in the Seattle district and 18 percent of 8,000 middle school students there, and yet they account for more than 40 percent of all suspensions and expulsions in those schools.
The racial disparity in student discipline "is a problem," Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda, who was appointed last May to oversee the district, told Reuters. "It is a concern for us."
School officials said they were unsure what led the Education Department to single out Seattle, but Banda added, "It was something that I was aware of when I started. The community has voiced concerns."
U.S. Education Department officials declined to say what led to the review. But spokesman Jim Bradshaw said the department was looking at whether Seattle schools were discriminating against blacks by disciplining them "more frequently and more harshly than similarly situated white students."
Banda said he believed Seattle was only the second school district, after Oakland, California, to come under a similar examination by the federal government.
That inquiry was concluded, according to the Seattle Times, when Oakland settled the matter by agreeing to avoid suspensions and expulsions as much as possible and to take a variety of other steps designed to minimize racial disparities.
Seattle, with some 50,000 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, ranks 99th among the nation's 100 largest public school districts, according to ProximityOne.com, an education resources website.
A sweeping study by the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights last year found black and Latino students across the United States were far more likely to be suspended than white students, and far less likely to have access to rigorous college-preparatory courses.
Among the study's findings were that one in five African-American boys, and one in 10 African-American girls, was suspended from school during the study period, the 2009-10 academic year. (Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Vicki Allen)