Winning praise from civil rights advocates, the U.S. Department of Education released new federal guidelines Wednesday aimed at stopping an explosion in student suspensions, expulsions and referrals to the criminal-justice system.
The ideas are a response to mounting concerns that overly punitive discipline is pushing too many low-income and minority students out of schools and toward failure rather than helping them engage academically. The Department of Education and the Department of Justice teamed up in a two-year effort to develop lists of resources and principles that educators have found effective at keeping campuses orderly without resorting to kicking out kids.
The package is intended to help schools chart new practices. Federal officials also emphasize that educators are obliged not to violate students' civil rights when punishing them. The package also provides resources for school police training and employee training in discipline techniques considered more productive than ejecting kids.
The Center for Public Integrity has reported on hot spots where high numbers of low-income Latino and black students have been subjected to lengthy expulsions from school for relatively minor infractions. Last year, the Center reported that expelled children of Latino farmworkers in California, for example, were dispatched to alternative schools so far from their homes — 20 miles, even 40 miles — that they dropped out or were told to only report to school only one day a week for a year.
The U.S. departments of Education and Justice both have civil rights offices that have stepped up investigations into complaints of disparate and harsh disciplinary practices affecting special-education students and ethnic-minority children. Complaints have included excessive suspensions of black children compared to white children accused of the same cell phone use violations.
“Everyone understands that school leaders need to have effective policies in place to make their campuses safe havens where learning can actually flourish,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in an announcement Wednesday. “Yet most exclusionary and disciplinary actions are for non-violent student behaviors, many of which once meant a phone call home.”
In his own statement, U.S Attorney General Eric Holder said: “A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct.”
The Center has also investigated school police crackdowns on children, including roundups inside schools in California and Utah conducted by police accused of targeting only black and Latino students. Lawsuits filed by civil rights lawyers accused police of violating the rights of students who had committed no infractions and were wrongly accused of gang affiliations and forced to pose for mock mug shots inside schools.
In Los Angeles, a series of Center reports showed that the L.A. Unified School Police Department — the nation’s largest school police force — was ticketing more than 10,000 students a year until recently, mostly in low-income neighborhoods. Kids were often cited for arriving tardy or for disturbing the peace. Nearly half of those court citations went to children 14 or younger. Juvenile court judges urged reforms at schools they said were too quick to involve police rather than resolving conflicts at school and through counseling.
The Center interviewed the family of a Los Angeles boy, 12, who was arrested and charged with assault after teachers asked police to respond to a fight between the boy and a friend. The boy had never been in trouble before. The school later apologized, but the boy’s record will remain in police files until he is 18. L.A. Unified police announced last November that they will no longer ticket kids 12 and younger, with some exceptions.
Over the last couple of years, the Department of Education has sounded an alarm over a sharp rise in out-of-school suspensions and expulsions nationally of students, especially minority kids, as revealed by the department’s Civil Rights Data Collection. Longitudinal research, including a major study in Texas, found that suspensions were linked to academic failure and higher risk of serious legal trouble rather than improving student behavior.
The release of the new federal discipline guidelines Wednesday was met with applause from advocates who have been lobbying local school districts and state legislatures to adopt limits on school discipline practices and the role of school police.
In California, Laura Faer, statewide education rights director of Public Counsel, a public interest law firm, praised the guidelines as “groundbreaking.” She said they will send a message to schools and state lawmakers to help students succeed by requiring the use of “positive school discipline practices.”
“Far too many students of color are suspended and expelled,” said Faer, whose group is helping the San Francisco Unified School District with new policies to address an alarming rate of suspensions of black students.
At the University of California at Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project, whose data analysis has charted sharp racial disparities in suspensions, lead researcher Dan Losen said: “This guidance represents a huge boost to the efforts of advocates across the nation, and contributes to the growing understanding that dramatic racial disparities are found most often in minor offense categories that are not justifiable.”
A statement from the American Civil Liberties Union said the guidelines “provide important guiding principles” when it comes to school police and “their proper role with respect to discipline. This includes improved training and a clear delineation of roles so that officers are not responsible for handling minor discipline.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has become a supporter of more training for educators on how to handle troubled students without resorting to out-of-school suspensions. But her comment suggested that schools need funding to help them adopt alternative policies. “The federal government made many positive suggestions,” she reportedly said, “but policies in a vacuum without actual resources and support will not succeed."