Pennsylvania’s public schools suspend Latino and African-American students at rates higher than the national average – creating an educational crisis that reaches far beyond the state’s troubled Philadelphia school system, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Over the past 15 years, one out of every 10 Latino students in Pennsylvania was suspended from school, giving the state one of the highest Hispanic suspension rates in the country, according to the report released by the ACLU entitled “Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools.”

The report found that in the 2011-12 school year, Pennsylvania’s school districts issued more than 166,000 suspensions, with 1,808 expulsions and 5,261 arrests. Leading the way in suspensions was the York City School District, which had an out-of-school suspension rate of 91.4 suspensions per 100 students.

York City, which has a sizeable Puerto Rican population and growing Mexican community, is about 28.5 Hispanic. The entire Latino population of Pennsylvania is only about 6.1 percent, according to recent Census data.

The ACLU cited a zero tolerance policy that has been implemented in many of Pennsylvania’s public school districts as one the main reasons for the state’s soaring suspension rates.

"Part of the problem is that under zero tolerance, a wide range of behaviors, from dress code violations to talking back, are now being punished as disorderly conduct, disruption, and defiant behavior," said the ACLU’s Harold Jordan, author of the report. "Those districts that have moved away from zero tolerance practices have found that other types of interventions can make a positive difference."

Along the zero tolerance policy, the ACLU took up concern with the use of police officers on school grounds. Eighty seven school districts employed a school resource officer in the 2011-12 school year, up from 26 in 2003-04.

"Expanded student contact with police raises troubling concerns about whether officers become involved in routine discipline matters that are not safety issues," Jordan said. "There is little evidence that the presence of full-time police has increased school safety."

The Pennsylvania Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among the recommendations made in the report were only removing students from school when there is a real safety threat to others, minimizing the use of law enforcement in schools and reviewing misconduct and incident patterns in schools with police officers.

"These zero tolerance practices have failed to make schools safer and, in the name of discipline, have deprived many young people of their opportunity to learn," said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

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