States Need to Adopt Progressive School Discipline Laws

While individual school districts, such as San Francisco and Madison have moved forward in ridding themselves of antiquated zero tolerance school discipline policies, in order for our nation to move away from continuing reports of high rates of discipline overall and racial and disability disproportionality in that discipline, states must adopt progressive school discipline laws.  Both Colorado and Massachusetts have done so.

Colorado’s law went into effect in 2012 and now data is coming in which shows a marked decrease in school discipline as follows:

  • Expulsions down 25%
  • Suspensions down 10%
  • Law Enforcement referrals down 9%
  • Racial disparities decreased 3-7% (depending on the category)

Work on racial disparities still needs to be done in Colorado as law enforcement referrals went up for African-American students by 8% and for Native American students by 3% in the 2012-13 school year. The entire report analyzing the initial impact of this law can be found here.

Massachusetts passed Chapter 222 of its Acts to improve the education of students who are disciplined in 2012, and its State Board of Education just adopted regulations which will implement the law effective July 1, 2014 at 603 CMR 53.  Since Massachusetts’ law is not in effect yet, there is no data available for its impact, but its provisions are worth consideration for other states who want to end the funneling of students into the school to prison pipeline.

Some of the key provisions of the new Massachusetts law, as summarized by Massachusetts Advocates for Children, are:

  • Students suspended for 10 or fewer consecutive days, whether in or out of school, shall have an opportunity to make academic progress during the period of suspension, to make up assignments and earn credits missed, including but not limited to homework, quizzes, exams, papers and projects missed
  • Principals shall develop a school-wide education service plan for all students excluded for more than 10 consecutive school days, whether in or out of school. Principals shall ensure that these students have an opportunity to make academic progress during the period of exclusion, to make up assignments and earn credits missed, including but not limited to homework, quizzes, exams, papers and projects missed.
  • Education service plans may include, but are not limited to: tutoring, alternative placement, Saturday school, and online or distance learning. Schools shall provide the student and the parent or guardian with a list of alternative educational services. Upon selection of an alternative educational service by the student and parent or guardian, the school shall facilitate and verify enrollment in the service.
  • Instructional costs of alternative educational services may be eligible for state reimbursement.
  • If the student moves to another school district during the period of exclusion, the new district shall either admit the student or provide educational services in an education service plan.
  • For each school that excludes a significant number of students for more than 10 cumulative days in a school year, the commissioner shall investigate and, as appropriate, shall recommend models that incorporate intermediary steps prior to the use of exclusion.
  • School officials, when deciding the disciplinary consequences for a student, shall exercise discretion for non-serious offenses, consider ways to re-engage the student in the learning process, and avoid using expulsion as a consequence until other remedies and consequences have been employed.
  • The principal or designee shall notify the superintendent of an exclusion imposed on a student enrolled in kindergarten through grade 3 prior to such suspension taking effect, describing the alleged misconduct and reason for exclusion.
  • A student who has been excluded for more than 10 school days for a single infraction or for more than 10 school days cumulatively for multiple infractions in any school year shall have the right to appeal to the superintendent.
  • No student shall be excluded for a time period that exceeds 90 school days.

Massachusetts’ new law also addresses drop outs, as follows.

  • Schools shall have a pupil absence notification program, designed to notify a parent or guardian if the school has not received notification of an absence from the parent or guardian within 3 days of the absence. Schools shall have a policy of notifying the parent or guardian if the student has at least 5 days in which the student has missed 2 or more periods unexcused in a school year or has missed 5 or more school days unexcused in a school year. The principal or designee shall make a reasonable effort to meet with the parent or guardian who has 5 or more unexcused absences to develop action steps for student attendance.
  • No student who has not graduated from high school shall be considered to have permanently left public school unless the school administrator has sent notice within a period of 5 days from the student’s 10th consecutive absence to the student and parent or guardian in the primary language of the parent or guardian and English, initially offering at least 2 dates and times for an exit interview between the superintendent or designee and the student and parent or guardian. The exit interview shall be for the purpose of discussing the reasons for the student permanently leaving school and to consider alternative education or other placements. During the exit interview, the student shall be given information about the detrimental effects of early withdrawal from school, the benefits of earning a high school diploma and the alternative education programs and services available to the student.

Colorado and Massachusetts are leading the way to end the alarmingly high and discriminatory suspension rates occurring throughout the nation. Which states will follow suit to end their schools to prison pipelines?

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.




Establish a Law School Clinical Program to Assist those Caught up in the Schools to Prison Pipeline

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak to University of Wisconsin Law School Clinical faculty and students about the possibility of establishing a clinical program through which law students, under the supervision of clinical faculty, would represent students caught up in the Schools to Prison Pipeline due to school discipline problems.  As of yet, there is no funding for such a program, but there is no doubt that the need is great.

As I have written previously, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) suspends over 2,000 students/year, over half of whom are African-American, and nearly half of whom have disabilities.  While there is hope on the horizon, given the school board’s recent decision to institute a new Behavior Education Plan starting in the 2014-15 school year, that Plan has no specific numerical goals, and as system change tends to take a long time, I have made it clear that students need advocates to navigate their way through the school discipline system.  This is not only my opinion, as the esteemed Yale Law Journal made clear that parents are not enough to help students with disabilities navigate their way through the complexities of the educational/legal system.  Quite plainly, students need external advocates.

There are many potential designs for a Schools to Prison Pipeline Law School Clinical program.  The David A. Clark School of Law at the University of District of Columbia has run an excellent Juvenile & Special Education Law Clinic for over 20 years. The Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University operates a Youth Justice Clinic.

If the University of Wisconsin Law School wants to establish a School to Prison Pipeline Clinic, it would have to make the following decisions:

  • Would it work on cases in one or more school districts?
  • Would it focus exclusively on children with disabilities, where the law is more helpful, or provide assistance to any student caught up in the Schools to Prison Pipeline?
  • Would it have office hours inside school buildings, with the cooperation of the school district, or work in a community agency, such as the Boys and Girls Club of Dane Countythe YWCA Madison, the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, or another local agency, which already work on Schools to Prison Pipeline issues?
  • Would the University of Wisconsin provide the funding for faculty to oversee the clinical program, and any other attendant costs, or would outside foundations need to fund the program?

While many different models could be implemented, the need is great, and students caught up in the schools to prison pipeline need legal assistance now, as there simply is not enough no or low cost legal assistance available to meet the enormous need.  If those who want to address the problem put their minds together, perhaps such a clinical program can begin as soon as the fall of 2014.  But, if not, the need will not disappear, so good planning should move forward so a high quality Schools to Prison Pipeline Law School Clinic can be established as soon as possible.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Celebrating Freedom Builds Community

Once again, this year’s Passover celebration of freedom reminded me how important this holiday is to the survival of the Jewish people for over 2000 years, despite many travails. The Torah commands the Jewish people to tell the story of their liberation from slavery to freedom every year.  While Jewish practice has varied over time, the core insistence on teaching children the value of freedom and remembering that we were once slaves is a reminder that freedom is precious and it takes work as a community both to obtain and to retain our freedom.

As usual, we gathered for a large seder in our home, with friends and family from the 3 Abrahamic religions, Jewish, Christian & Muslim, to re-tell the story.  While the seder, (literally meaning “order”) prescribes 14 set elements, from the 1st of 4 blessings over glasses of wine, to the conclusion hours later, the survival of the Jewish people has also allowed families to incorporate their own traditions into their seders.

In our home, when we introduce ourselves to each other as we gather at the table, we share with each other our thoughts about both the freedom we are currently appreciating as well as the freedom we are still seeking, because the truth is that all of us enjoy some freedom, but none of us enjoy complete freedom.  In doing so, we build community by getting to know each other a little better. In addition, this practice causes each of us to step back from our busy lives to focus on freedom obtained, and freedom sought.

This year, our seder gathering included 23 people, ranging from a Turkish Muslim baby not quite one year old, to an 87 year old Moroccan Jew who described his wandering from nation to nation, including France, Israel and Norway, eventually arriving in the United States, and always seeking freedom.  Some shared very personal freedoms sought & obtained.  Others shared global concerns for oppressed people who struggle mightily to obtain freedom in dire circumstances.  All sentiments were valued because in sharing freedoms sought and freedoms obtained, we were continuing a tradition that builds and strengthens a community that cherishes freedom and understands how fragile it is.


Each year, as Jews the world over celebrate their Exodus from enslavement in Egypt thousands of years ago, I wonder whether others who have suffered from slavery could benefit from such a practice.  This is one reason why we always invite non-Jews to our seder, in order to broaden the celebration of freedom.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu stated so eloquently,

Liberation is costly.  Even after the Lord had delivered the Israelites from Egypt, they had to travel through the desert.  They had to bear the responsibilities and difficulties of freedom.  There was starvation and thirst and they kept complaining.  Many of them preferred the days of bondage.

We must remember that liberation is costly.  It needs unity.  We must hold hands and refuse to be divided.  We must be ready.  Some of us will not see the day of our liberation physically.  But those people will have contributed to the struggle.  Let us be united, let us be filled with hope.  Let us be those who respect one another.

Some struggle for freedom alone, but Passover reminds us that struggling for freedom together builds community and expands freedom for many.


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



The Synergy of Individual Advocacy & Systems Change

Recently, I had the opportunity to demonstrate, once again, the synergy of individual advocacy & systems change.  For nearly 20 years, I have been combating the schools to prison pipeline, as I wrote about over a year ago.  In January, I started writing a series of blogs and submitted them to the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) school board as its administrators developed a series of 4 drafts of what started out as a proposed revision of its discipline plan, but on my advice, became the new Behavior Education Plan, which will go into effect on September 1, 2014, and you can review here.  That plan had been sailing under the radar with relatively minimal public input, until my clients and I recently went public with an expulsion case which was a classic  example of zero tolerance run amok.  Fortunately, in one night, the school board ended my client’s expulsion, and then proceeded to approve the new Behavior Education Plan, in front of a packed auditorium, putting 2 nails in the coffin of zero tolerance.

As I testified to the school board that night, MMSD’s new, improved plan is not perfect, as it fails to set specific goals for reducing out of school discipline such as suspensions and expulsions, and accordingly fails to set specific goals for reducing the racial and disability disparities in both discipline and academic achievement which the district has long struggled to overcome.  In addition, I encouraged the school board to place advocates in each school to assist students and their parents through the discipline process as well as other challenges, including academic, which students may encounter.

Unfortunately, after I made that suggestion, the President of the MMSD School Board, publicly criticized my suggestion, as he does not view the discipline process as “adversarial,” which is fairly remarkable given his work as an attorney, but even more remarkable given that he truly does not understand the role that advocates actively play not only to improve outcomes for the children for whom they advocate, but to help change flawed systems for the better.

For nearly 30 years, my career as a civil rights attorney has involved taking individual cases and evolving them, when appropriate, into positive systems change.  This includes the struggle to finally pass a new law prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint, which only occurred after representing many students harmed by this horrific practice and shedding the bright media light on it.

Any system that desires continuous improvement should recognize the value of advocacy as both an individual corrective tool, as well as a vehicle for identifying systemic problems. Dane County, Wisconsin, has recognized the value of having an internal ombudsman in its human services department to “ensure that people are getting appropriate services.”

While it is unclear whether MMSD can afford to place ombudsmen or advocates in each of its schools, it should certainly examine its budget to pilot such a program in schools with the highest discipline and academic problems.  Moreover, it could partner with outside agencies, which have existing advocacy services, such as Wisconsin Family Ties, which uses non-lawyer professional advocates, Wisconsin FACETS, which uses non-lawyer paid and volunteer advocates, and Disability Rights Wisconsin, which uses non-lawyer advocates with legal back-up and occasional direct lawyer involvement.  However, all of these agencies only work with children with disabilities, and I know of no agency providing school advocacy services to non-disabled students.

If the MMSD truly wants to ensure that its new Behavior Education Plan succeeds, it should actively engage with existing advocacy organizations, and work to obtain foundation support to fund advocates for non-disabled students.  Working together with the school district, on behalf of students, these advocates can correct natural human errors in the new system, and provide useful data to the MMSD administration so it can take corrective measures when repeated problems inevitably crop up.


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