Landmark School Discipline Guidelines Announced by the Federal Government

By Harold Jordan, Community Organizer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

From left to right, Damon Hewitt (Open Society), Sen. Chris Murphy (CT), Joyce Parker (Citizens for a Better Greenville, MS), Harold Jordan, Sec. Duncan, and Marlyn Tillman (Gwinnett Parent Campaign to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline, GA) (credit: Harold Jordan)

From left to right, Damon Hewitt (Open Society), Sen. Chris Murphy (CT), Joyce Parker (Citizens for a Better Greenville, MS), Harold Jordan, Sec. Duncan, and Marlyn Tillman (Gwinnett Parent Campaign to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline, GA) (credit: Harold Jordan)

Last week, in a major announcement, the federal government issued new guidelines for all K-12 public schools with the goals of reducing discrimination in the administration of school discipline and improving school climate without overly relying on measures that remove students from school. I was at the event at which Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder presented the federal discipline guidance, “Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline,” and materials promoting best alternative school disciplinary practices. Appropriately, it was held at Justice Thurgood Marshall’s alma matter, Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore.

It is well known that different groups of students are removed from schools -by suspension, expulsion or police action – at dramatically different rates. Sec. Duncan opened the gathering by sharing the federal government’s most recent data:

• Black students are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled;
• 50 per cent of students involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement are black or Latino.
• 95 per cent of suspensions were for non-violent offenses.
• In Maryland alone, some 91 pre-K students were suspended or expelled during the 2011-2012 school year.

These trends are consistent with what we documented about Pennsylvania in our recent report – Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools. In Pennsylvania, black students are suspended at five times the rate of white students. Students with disabilities are twice as likely as other students to be suspended out of school.

Most striking was Sec. Duncan’s statement that these differences are not caused principally by differences in kids’ behavior, but by the actions of adults. Duncan added that regional differences in discipline rates – he compared South Carolina to one of the Dakotas – were not a result of differences in student behavior. The guidance document explores possible causes: differences in punishment of students for the same offense and seemingly race neutral school policies that are known to have a discriminatory effect. A recent study of the records of one million students concluded that black students are more likely than other students to be disciplined for minor infractions of the code of conduct.

Federal officials should be applauded for not just criticizing discipline practices, but for also identifying alternative strategies for making schools more peaceful without denying certain students a right to an education.

Moving the government to the point of taking this action was a long struggle. It took years of investigation, analysis, and complaints brought by parents, students, and community members to prod the federal government to move forward boldly.

These guidelines are only a start. Members of school communities must ensure that changes are implemented. The ACLU is firmly committed to being a partner in these reform efforts. In the words of Sec. Duncan, “The school-to-prison pipeline must be challenged every day.”

Harold Jordan is a community organizer at the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the author of Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools.