The Obama administration Wednesday unveiled sweeping national school discipline guidelines urging schools to remove students from classrooms for disciplinary reasons only as a last resort.
“Unfortunately, a significant number of students are removed from class each year – even for minor infractions of school rules – due to exclusionary discipline practices, which disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in a letter to school stakeholders nationwide.
For example, civil rights data from the 2011-12 school year show that African-American youths without disabilities were more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be suspended or expelled.
Students receiving special education services, who represented 12 percent of all students in the country, comprised 19 percent of students suspended in school, 20 percent receiving out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students involved in a school-related arrest.
And more than half of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or African-American.
“Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today, and not just an issue from 40 to 50 years ago,” Duncan said during a visit to Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore. “We must tackle these brutal truths head on. That is the only way to change the reality that our children face every day.”
Along with reducing disparities in school discipline, the guidelines seek to address the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.
“Alarming numbers of young people are suspended, expelled or even arrested for relatively minor transgressions like school uniform violations, schoolyard fights or showing ‘disrespect’ by laughing in class,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “A routine school discipline infraction should land a student in a principal’s office, not in a police precinct.”
The guidelines – the first national guidelines on school discipline – grew out of an initiative launched in 2011 by the Education Department and the Justice Department to ensure safe schools while addressing disciplinary policies and practices that can put students out of school and into the justice system.
In his letter, Duncan pointed to a 2011 Texas study of nearly 1 million students that found almost six in 10 public school students were suspended or expelled at least once during their seventh- to 12th-grade years. Of the 1 million students, 15 percent were disciplined 11 or more times.
“The widespread overuse of suspensions and expulsions has tremendous costs,” Duncan wrote. “Students who are suspended or expelled from school may be unsupervised during daytime hours and cannot benefit from great teaching, positive peer interactions, and adult mentorship offered in class and in school.”
Duncan noted students who are suspended are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again, repeat a grade, drop out of school and become involved in the juvenile justice system.
In addition to the guidelines, U.S. officials released a directory of federal technical assistance and other resources related to school discipline and school climate as well as an online catalog of laws and regulations related to school discipline in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
The new guidelines urged schools to:
- Create “positive climates” that focus on preventing misbehavior and rely on strategies like social-emotional learning programs, peer mediation and restorative justice. The guidelines called school-based mental health professionals critical to identifying students’ needs, providing mental health support based on those needs and helping teachers better understand students’ developmental needs and respond to behavioral issues. Partnerships with community-based mental health agencies and child welfare agencies can help fill in staffing gaps to better support students’ needs, the guidelines said.
- Ensure that school discipline is applied fairly without regard to a student’s race, color, national origin, religion, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or status as an English language learner, migrant or homeless student. Schools should regularly evaluate discipline policies to determine whether they’re affecting students of different racial or ethnic groups equally, and school systems should release discipline information disaggregated by school and race.
- When working with local law enforcement agencies, ensure that partnerships are structured and implemented to avoid violations of students’ civil rights or student privacy laws. If schools use school-based security officers, they should clearly delineate officers’ roles and responsibilities in writing, provide proper training and continuously monitor officers’ activity. School officials, not school resource officers or other security or law enforcement personnel, are responsible for administering routine student discipline.
- Provide professional development and training opportunities for all staff, including any school-based law enforcement officers, that clearly spell out how to engage students, promote positive behavior and respond to misconduct. Such training should include techniques in classroom management, conflict resolution and “de-escalation approaches” that reduce classroom disruptions.
- Establish a school-wide discipline policy, with input from students and families, that specifies expectations for behavior and consequences for misbehavior and provides ways to use disciplinary incidents to help students learn from them and improve their behavior. The policy should include protections for students with disabilities and “strong due process protections” for all students.
- Strive to keep students “in school and engaged in learning to the greatest extent possible” and “remove students from the classroom as a disciplinary consequence only as a last resort and only for appropriately serious infractions.”
- Provide cultural awareness training to all school staff, including training on dealing with a racially and ethnically diverse student population.
The school discipline guidelines drew praise Wednesday from the American Civil Liberties Union.
"With the rise of law enforcement in our schools, the proliferation of zero-tolerance policies, and misuse of suspensions and expulsions, our nation’s school discipline policies are pushing children, most of whom are students of color and students with disabilities, out of school," Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU senior legislative counsel, said in a news release. "Today, the federal government has issued groundbreaking guidance that will help all school districts end misguided, discriminatory school discipline policies.
“This guidance makes it crystal clear for schools what their obligations are under our civil rights laws and provides examples of best practices so that they can easily implement positive alternative practices. This is a victory for all who care about creating environments where students can thrive."