Researchers have long found differences in how schools and juvenile facilities discipline minority and white students, but inconsistent data collection has made analysis difficult.

An increase in civil rights complaints arising from disciplinary actions has caught the eye of the U.S. Department of Education. Currently, eight of the agency’s 13 civil rights investigations on discipline are in Southern states. Some investigations are based on formal complaints, but others are initiated by the department to determine if a district is complying with civil rights law.

In St. James Parish the DOE followed up on a complaint and found that when black students broke rules, teachers were less sympathetic and flexible than with white students.

Russlynn Ali, the DOE’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said white students tended to get feedback along the lines of, “Michael is a good student. There are problems at home.”

“In other words, they described them as almost an apology for the white student, and on the other side for African-American students, we saw a pattern where you didn’t see the caveat. They were automatically referred to the disciplinary and detention track,” Ali said.

She said the district’s teachers weren’t racist, but they work in a stressful environment and need help in managing their classrooms in a fair manner. But Alonzo Luce, the superintendent for St. James Parish, said the main problem was a lack of documentation on discipline for “willful disobedience,” which is a broad category of violations.

School officials have since received training in order to document violations properly, he said.

That kind of documentation is exactly what DOE is looking for.

Experts say that racial disparities in discipline occur across the country. But without consistent data — such as information on the violation, the school’s response and the race of the student — it’s often difficult to describe the patterns.

“I think it’s hard to generalize by regions. There are certainly some trends out there,” said Jim Freeman, who works at The Advancement Project.

Freeman said that the type of punishment can differ in the South, where most states that still allow corporal punishment are located.

“And there can be some differences because in Northern states, most of the communities of color are located in urban areas,” he said. “Whereas in the South there are more rural communities of color.”

In the fall, the DOE will release the first round of more-comprehensive data, which could help researchers more clearly understand the nature of disparities in school.

“Beginning this year, we are going to have more data than ever before on discipline rates,” Ali said.

Called the Civil Rights Data Collection, the data is a two-part biennial survey. The first part was released June 30, but the discipline data won’t come until the second part is released in the fall.

The data come from roughly 7,000 school districts of all sizes and grade levels, including juvenile justice facilities. Much of it will be searchable online. And it will include data on violations such as harassment and bullying, as well as disciplinary actions such as restraint and seclusion.

DOE will break down the data by race, disability and other factors to see what patterns emerge. One pattern, however, is already clear.

“We are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of complaints the Office of Civil Rights has seen generally,” Ali said. She said there were 9 percent more complaints in fiscal year 2010 than in 2009, and she expects her office may see 3 percent more this fiscal year.

“Now, allegations are not violations,” Ali cautioned.

More data is needed to clarify the picture of classrooms and principals’ offices, but Freeman and other civil rights advocates agree with Ali that racial disparities are well-documented.

“Racial disparities can’t be explained away by looking at differences in socio-economic status or disability status or any of that,” said Freeman. “Black students in particular are far more likely to be punished in the first place and to receive harsher punishment than their peers.”

Recent examples have highlighted the problem in Southern states.

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union investigated Mississippi’s alternative schools, which were created in the 1990s to help more troubled teens graduate from school. The ACLU found that some school districts referred black students to the schools at a much higher rate or for more-vague violations.

The ACLU criticized the alternative school system for failing to be transparent and accountable.

“Obtaining reliable information about student populations, programming, or outcomes is nearly impossible,” according to the report.

In response, the Mississippi Legislature that year passed a law requiring school districts to report data about the alternative schools, but the reports still aren’t available through the state education department’s online database, meaning the public can’t easily access the data.

But state officials say the data have been collected and are helping the department internally.

And last year, the Florida state advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigated Duval County Schools. The committee, in a September report, found that black students faced much more disciplinary consequences than their white peers.

Ed Pratt-Dannals, superintendent of Duval County, Fla. said the district had already been working to reduce violence in the school and broader community when the CCR review began, prompted by their own data collection.

“We’ve made significant improvements across the board with African-American students, whether or not you’re talking about a dramatic reduction in major conduct violations, suspensions, expulsions, just about everything,” Pratt-Dannals said.

He said positive changes came from “a community-wide effort” by the state attorney’s office, city recreation and other officials.

But the CCR report found that although the school system had greatly improved the overall situation, the changes had done nothing to narrow the racial disparities. Black students were suspended 57 percent less between 2009 and 2010, and suspension of white students went down 60 percent over the same period.

One thing the Duval County schools and the federal government do agree on is the importance of data, without which, Pratt-Dannals said, the improvements in disciplinary rates would have never happened. He said that the county has long been not only collecting the data, but breakin g it down by race.

“We’ve been disaggregating data for a decade, and it became a concern within our community,” he said.