Two federal agencies have issued a report to school districts across the country saying that racial discrimination in school discipline is “a real problem.” Nationally, the letter says, “African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended.”

Activist groups have said for years that schools disproportionately punish students of color with expulsion, but with a new school discipline guidance package released Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice stated that “significant and unexplained racial disparities in student discipline give rise to concerns that schools may be engaging in racial discrimination that violates the federal civil rights laws.”

In a letter to school officials, the DOJ and DOE recommend a long list of remedies, including clarifying discipline policies, using “exclusionary discipline” as a last resort, and designating a school official as a discipline supervisor to ensure policies are enforced fairly.

The guidance package is supported by the Civil Rights Data Collection, a nationwide study based on 2009 data. On a local level, CRDC data from the Charleston County School District found that 79 percent of students referred to law enforcement for behavior problems were African-American, despite the fact that African Americans only made up 48 percent of the overall district population.

“The Departments recognize that disparities in student discipline rates in a school or district may be caused by a range of factors,” the letter says. “However, research suggests that the substantial racial disparities of the kind reflected in the CRDC data are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.”

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, gave the following statement on the guidance package:

The ACLU of South Carolina welcomes this new guidance, as the discriminatory impact of discipline policies in South Carolina, which fall hardest on children of color, has been well documented for some time. The ACLU of SC calls on South Carolina educators and officials to work to end the discriminatory discipline policies that still exist in our state (including zero tolerance laws like “disturbing schools” and corporal punishment).