WASHINGTON — Advocates for reforming school discipline policies said on Tuesday that recent findings indicating a racial disparity in punishments highlight a need for change.

“We need a paradigm shift to move from a punitive, sanction-based system… to a restorative, responsibility-based system,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Black secondary school students were given out-of-school suspensions at a rate of 23.2 percent during the 2011-2012 school year, according to a UCLA Civil Rights Project report released in late February. Latino students at the same grade levels were suspended at a 10.8 percent rate. White students, however, were suspended at a 6.7 percent rate.

“This is an academic issue,” said Daniel Losen, one of the report’s authors. “This is not really primarily a safety issue. This goes to the core of school environments and whether we have a healthy educational environment to provide kids with appropriate conditions for learning.”

Schools need to have a “safe, welcoming” environment, Weingarten said. But the wide implementation of zero tolerance policies in schools to combat students’ behavior has led to dangerous atmospheres for disadvantaged students.

Much of the issue, according to Harry Lawson, Jr., the National Education Association’s associate director of human and civil rights, stems from teachers’ mindsets about disciplining students.

“I think the primary success for us at least internally [has been] to change the dynamic of the conversation inside the union” about zero tolerance, Lawson said.

Focusing on what can be done to combat the issue, as well as the challenges students, parents, teachers and administrators face, Lawsen, Losen and Weingarten joined Virginia Democrat Rep. Bobby Scott at a panel to address the race problem.

“We have a lot of nonsensical initiatives,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “If you are truant, you get punished by what? By being told you don’t have to come school. Really? You have zero tolerance which takes away all common sense in punishment.”

Along with the UCLA report, the panel also looked at school discipline in the context of a joint agenda from the Departments of Education and Justice on “improving school climate and discipline” released in Jan. 2014.

Although efforts to improve schools’ discipline policies have lowered suspension rates for all demographics in recent years, the panelists agreed that more policy change and additional resources are needed.

“The disproportion in [school] discipline is a serious issue,” Scott said. “We can do better and…we will do better.”