Major Crisis in American schools: “Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today, and not just an issue from 40 to 50 years ago”

Major Crisis in American schools: “Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today, and not just an issue from 40 to 50 years ago”

By Sarah Belton, Cartwright-Baron Attorney

That was said, out loud, by Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, during his remarks at the unveiling of the Joint Department of Justice and Education Department School Discipline Guidance Package last week. The new Guidance Package is replete with data, highlighting, for example, that while African American students make up only 15% of public school students, they represent 35% of students suspended once, 44% of students suspended twice, and 36% of students expelled.

The federal government action represents an acknowledgment that the pendulum has swung too far toward punitive discipline and has led to the systematic, repeated removal of too many students from schools. The release of the Guidance Package has brought renewed attention to an issue that advocates and community members have been championing at local, state, and federal levels for years. Much of the dialogue focuses on “zero tolerance” policies, which are laws that require school districts to take disciplinary action for certain infractions. Some states enacted these zero tolerance policies to qualify for federal education funds.  

The 2014 Guidance Package does not represent the discovery of a novel issue, but the latest effort to address the problem that continues to plague our public schools.  And change most certainly also will involve an actual dialogue about racial discrimination in schools and the implicit biases that emerge in the way school discipline is metered out to students of color and students with disabilities.  

The federal government involvement in the school discipline issue has developed gradually over a number of years. In 2010, The Departments of Education and Justice held a series of conferences on preventing discipline disparities in schools. One conference was for school district administrators, teachers, and support staff. Many of the panels featured speakers from school districts who had been forced, either by litigation or the threat of litigation, to change their discipline policies. But more than just enacting better policies, these districts also followed up by regularly looking at their discipline data. Better discipline outcomes measured in terms of fewer students being removed from the classroom does not automatically mean that disparities disappear. There were no government lawyers actively participating in these panels, but the message from the government was clear: schools and school districts should pay close attention to disparities.

Then in 2012, the federal government released a large amount of discipline data from 72,000 public schools serving 85% of students. School discipline disparities were evident in the 2011-2012 school year data, and Secretary Duncan referred to the findings as a “wake-up call.”

While data is helpful, and provides a snapshot of the big picture of school discipline in the aggregate, behind the disparities are live students. The federal government makes a valiant effort to force the pendulum to swing away from punitive discipline (and the resulting school-to-prison-pipeline) and toward healthier school climates.  But, the Guidance Package is only one step.   

There may not be one magical answer to this problem. Indeed many school districts are relying on a variety of options – from school-wide positive behavior interventions and supports to restorative justice to banning suspensions and expulsions for certain behaviors. We should remember that changes to school discipline may necessitate resource reallocation away from the initial policies that added to this problem. Because if we truly want different outcomes for our students – education in school rather than discipline out of school – then we have to be willing to do things differently to move forward.

photo: CC by Gates Foundation

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