The Obama administration yesterday took a major step toward stemming the school-to-prison pipeline that funnels Black boys into the criminal justice system, when Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan together urged schools to stop suspending students for minor infractions that disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic students.
African-American students are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled, officials said.
“The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is frankly long overdue,” Duncan said, as he and Holder went to Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore to unveil the first ever national guidelines on school discipline.
They chose Baltimore because that city has been singled out for its success in bringing about a major reduction in student suspensions in recent years. In addition, the state of Maryland is expected to vote on reforms to state discipline policies later this month.
In his comments, Duncan said racial discrimination in school discipline is “a real problem today — it’s not just an issue from 30 or 40 or 50 years ago.”
The Obama administration officials said too many schools resort to suspension, expulsion or arrest for problems that could be handled in more constructive ways, resulting in offenses that once landed students in a principal’s office now leading to a police precinct.
“Too often, so-called zero-tolerance policies, however well intentioned they might be, make students feel unwelcome in their own schools; they disrupt the learning process,” Holder said. “And they can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people, increasing their likelihood of future contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
The nation’s secondary schools suspend or expel 2 million students each year, with 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions for nonviolent offenses such as disruption, disrespect, tardiness and dress code violations.
“That’s a staggering amount of lost learning time and lost opportunity to provide more meaningful support,” Duncan said. “These are all issues that must be dealt with clearly, effectively and with a sense of urgency when they arise, but I must ask: Is putting children out of school the best solution, the best remedy, for those problems?”
According to Duncan, students should be removed from classrooms “as a last resort,” and only for serious infractions such as endangering the safety of other students or teachers.
Studies have shown that students who are suspended more than twice are much more likely to wind up in prison.
“These much-needed guidelines send a strong message from the federal government that it takes seriously the criminalization of children, particularly children of color, in schools. It acknowledges that race plays an improper role in school discipline practices with long-term negative consequences for students’ educational outcomes,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., said in response to the release of the new federal guidelines.
“This is historic,” Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, told the Washington Post. “Disparities in school discipline have been documented since the 1970s, and we’ve never been able to get the federal government to step in and help stop it.”
The new guidelines were released as part of a “guidance package” with multiple materials and an online compendium of discipline laws and regulations across the country.
In addition, the administration is planning to send $50 million in grants to more than 1,000 schools with the purpose of training teachers and staff in research-based strategies aimed at improving student behavior and school climate.