Federal Government takes Stand Against Schools to Prison Pipeline

Today, the U.S. Dept. of Education joined with U.S. Dept. of Justice in issuing important guidance on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of Student Discipline.  This extensive 23 page letter with an 8 page appendix begins by reviewing the data uncovered by the Civil Rights Data Collection (CDRC) conducted by the Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).  This data reveals significant racial disparities in the administration of student discipline.  Among the findings are:

  • African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended.
  • Although African-American students represent 15% of students in the CRDC, they make up 35% of students suspended once, 44% of those suspended more than once, and 36% of students expelled.
  • Over 50% of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.

Most significantly, the guidance states that,

research suggests that the substantial racial disparities of the kind reflected in the CRDC data are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.

This is because

in our investigations we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students. In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem. 

It is important to understand that,

The CRDC data also show that an increasing number of students are losing important instructional time due to exclusionary discipline. The increasing use of disciplinary sanctions such as in-school and out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, or referrals to law enforcement authorities creates the potential for significant, negative educational and long-term outcomes, and can contribute to what has been termed the “school to prisons pipeline.” Studies have suggested a correlation between exclusionary discipline policies and practices and an array of serious educational, economic, and social problems, including school avoidance and diminished educational engagement; decreased academic achievement; increased behavior problems; increased likelihood of dropping out; substance abuse; and involvement with juvenile justice systems.

The guidance letter then specifically points out prohibited practices including intentional discrimination by disparate treatment, i.e., administering harsher discipline on students due to their race (or other protected class) for the same behavior as another student; and discrimination through disparate impact where one racial (or other protected class) group receives overall harsher or more discipline than another without valid justification.  To determine whether this is occurring, the federal government will ask the following questions:

  1. Has the discipline policy resulted in an adverse impact on students of a particular race as compared with students of other races?
  2. Is the discipline policy necessary to meet an important educational goal?
  3. Are there comparably effective alternative policies or practices that would meet the school’s stated educational goal with less of a burden or adverse impact on the disproportionately affected racial group, or is the school’s proffered justification a pretext for discrimination?

Examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation (e.g., ticketing or other fines or summonses) upon any student who commits a specified offense – such as being tardy to class, being in possession of a cellular phone, being found insubordinate, acting out, or not wearing the proper school uniform; corporal punishment policies that allow schools to paddle, spank, or otherwise physically punish students; and discipline policies that prevent youth returning from involvement in the justice system from reenrolling in school. Additionally, policies that impose out-of-school suspensions or expulsions for truancy also raise concerns because a school would likely have difficulty demonstrating that excluding a student from attending school in response to the
student’s efforts to avoid school was necessary to meet an important educational goal.

From an advocacy perspective, this means that if advocates file complaints against school districts for discriminatory discipline practices, and the federal government substantiates the complaint, the federal government may require one or more of the following remedies:

  • correcting the records of students who were treated differently regarding the infraction and sanction imposed;
  • providing compensatory, comparable academic services to students receiving in-school or out-of-school suspensions, expelled, placed in an alternative school, or otherwise removed from academic instruction;
  • revising discipline policies to provide clear definitions of infractions to ensure that consequences are fair and consistent;
  • developing and implementing strategies for teaching, including the use of appropriate supports and interventions, which encourage and reinforce positive student behaviors and utilize exclusionary discipline as a last resort;
  • providing training for school personnel on revised discipline policies and classroom management techniques;
  • providing school-based supports for struggling students whose behavior repeatedly disrupts their education and/or the education of other students;
  • designating a school official as a discipline supervisor to ensure that the school implements its discipline policies fairly and equitably;
  • conducting and/or reviewing comprehensive needs assessments to ensure they are effective in measuring the perceptions of students and other members of the community in connection with the administration of school discipline, and using the results of these assessments to make responsive changes to policies and practices;
  • at least annually, conducting a forum during the school day that provides students, teachers and administrators the opportunity to discuss matters relating to discipline and provide input on the school’s discipline policies;
  • developing a training and information program for students and community members that explains the school’s discipline policies and what is expected of students in an age-appropriate, easily understood manner;
  • creating a plan for improving teacher-student relationships and on-site mentoring programs; and
  • conducting an annual comprehensive review of school resource officer interventions and practices to assess their effectiveness in helping the school meet its goals and objectives for student safety and discipline.

Finally, the Appendix includes important recommendations to improve school climate, including:

  • Creating safe, inclusive, and positive school climates that provide students with supports such as evidence-based tiered supports and social and emotional learning.
  • Providing all school personnel, including teachers, administrators, support personnel, and school resource officers, with ongoing, job-embedded professional development and training in evidence-based techniques on classroom management, conflict resolution, and de- escalation approaches that decrease classroom disruptions and utilize exclusionary disciplinary sanctions as a last resort.
  • Ensuring that school personnel understand that they, rather than school resource officers and other security or law enforcement personnel, are responsible for administering routine student discipline.
  • Ensuring that discipline policies include a range of measures that students may take to improve their behavior prior to disciplinary action.
  • Emphasizing positive interventions over student removal.
  • Developing a policy requiring the regular evaluation of each school’s discipline policies and practices and other school-wide behavior management approaches to determine if they are affecting students of different racial and ethnic groups equally.
  • Collecting and using multiple forms of data, including school climate surveys, incident data, and other measures as needed, to track progress in creating and maintaining a safe, inclusive and positive educational environment.

In sum, this landmark guidance is an important step in eliminating the Schools to Prison Pipeline.  Now it is up to advocates and school districts to make sure this guidance is implemented and that the Schools to Prison Pipeline becomes a thing of the past so all students can thrive and learn in safe schools.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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