Can federal education law be used to curb harsh school discipline?

Debate over how to alter No Child Left Behind

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Juvenile residents sit at a table in a new career guidance center at the Atlanta Department of Juvenile Justice's Metro Regional Youth Detention Center in August 2014.

David Goldman/AP

Opponents of zero-tolerance school discipline are urging Congress to use education funding to pressure states to reduce suspensions and referrals of students to juvenile-justice systems.

The advocates see an opportunity to advance their concerns because Congress is currently debating reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA. The act was last reauthorized in 2001 under the name No Child Left Behind. That controversial legislation, which expired in 2007, tied funding for qualifying schools to mandatory student testing.  Divided lawmakers haven’t been able to come up with a replacement for the act but congressional leaders say this is now a priority.

On Thursday, a Capitol Hill roundtable featured Democratic lawmakers backing discipline-related measures they hope their colleagues will agree to include in proposals now pending in the Republican-led House and Senate.

The roundtable was sponsored by Dignity in Schools, a national network of parents and civil rights groups concerned with so-called school push out -- when  children are removed from school to punish them for disruptive conduct. The network is waging campaigns in 24 states to urge school districts and states to use counseling, mediation and conflict resolution methods—rather than suspending kids from classrooms or calling police in to deal with relatively minor conflicts.

 “Public school discipline practices are pushing children out of school,” said Janel George, senior education policy counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which co-sponsored the event. “You cannot learn and you cannot achieve if you’re not in a classroom.”

Edilberto Flores, 19, of the Los Angeles Youth Justice Coalition, said he was first suspended from school in fourth grade for carrying a lighter. He said he had a chaotic home life where he was exposed to guns in his house, cocaine dealing and beatings of family members.

 “I was only a little kid,” he said.  At school, he said, “they never asked me why I carried a lighter with me. They never asked me what was going on with me... They didn’t know what was going with me at home.” 

Flores said he was repeatedly suspended and finally expelled from high school. He did time in juvenile detention for assault—where a mentor connected with him and helped him eventually graduate from a different high school after he was released from jail. 

After the roundtable, students, parents and others affiliated with Dignity in Schools visited lawmakers’ offices at the Capitol to lobby them to embrace discipline-related proposals authored by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

At the roundtable Scott said lagging achievement for minority students is directly linked to suspensions, which are disproportionately imposed on students of color.  

“All the bad things start happening when you drop out of school,” Scott said, “and school suspensions are the first step to dropping out.  It’s also a major step in what’s called the school-to-prison pipeline. Once you’re on that trajectory, that’s where you’re headed.”

Scott has been urging schools to embrace discipline reforms for some time now in Virginia.

While school districts practicing harsh discipline are scattered across the country, the Center for Public Integrity recently analyzed national education data and found that Scott’s home state of Virginia led the nation for the rate at which students are referred to law enforcement agencies from schools.  Local police data the Center obtained shows that referrals are mostly for allegations of some sort of disorderly conduct. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointed cabinet members in May to come up with ideas for how to stop the flow of students into the criminal-justice system.

Scott, on Capitol Hill, has included specific provisions related to school discipline in a “Democratic substitute” he authored in response to a GOP-supported education reauthorization bill in the House. The GOP-supported House bill is the Student Success Act by Education and Workforce Committee chairman John Kline, R-Minn.  The committee passed the bill in February.

Dignity in Schools and other advocates say the Kline bill lacks incentives to push schools to adopt discipline reforms they argue are successful at keeping kids in school and changing disruptive behavior. They bill, they say, simply allows for funds distributed as large block grants to be used for "school safety" that could include counseling methods.

In a letter to Kline in February, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund urged consideration of Scott’s discipline proposals. “The Scott Amendment would prevent schools that employ overly punitive ‘zero tolerance’ policies from receiving federal dropout prevention grants,” the letter said.

Scott’s amendments would also block some federal funds if schools “have demonstrated racial discipline disparities or overuse exclusionary discipline,” the group said. But the proposals would also allow states to “use data to help develop and target improvements,” including support for teachers and school leaders and “better family engagement programs.”

George of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said she’s seen signs of bipartisan agreement in the Senate that give her hope that some discipline reforms could make it into legislation.

In February, the Every Child Succeeds Act—a Senate proposal—was passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee with bipartisan support. It included an amendment sponsored by Connecticut Democrat Murphy that requires states to develop policies to stop unnecessary seclusion of students and physical restraints to respond to discipline problems. 

The amendment stemmed from the Supportive School Climate Act of 2015, which Murphy co-authored with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.  The bill includes requirements that schools show how they will develop “positive behavior interventions” for students. It also requires development of codes that acknowledge the negative impact of putting kids in the criminal-justice system and that emphasize attempts to help students learn from mistakes rather than be removed from school.   

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