Today, for the first time, the United States Departments of Education and Justice jointly released guidance  that outlines civil rights obligations regarding school discipline that schools and districts throughout the country must follow affirming that "racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem."
The guidance was included in a resource package with guiding principles and a resource guide from the Department of Education encouraging "educators to proactively redesign discipline policies" to promote safe, fair policies which will move away from exclusionary discipline and towards prevention and positive school climates that improve educational outcomes for every student in the country. Together, this resource package is an invaluable resource for educators and advocates who are working diligently to end the school-to-prison pipeline by eradicating overly punitive disciplinary measures that disproportionately affect students of color.
"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," said Sherrilyn Ifill , the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., (LDF).
The Departments' investigations have identified "cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students." Sadly, recent data collected by the U.S. Department of Education continue to show significant racial disparities in school discipline, as black students nationwide are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled compared to their white peers. Nationwide, 95% of out-of-school suspensions are for non-violent infractions -- such as disrespect.
"There is no question that this federal guidance comes at a critical time. For far too long, youth of color have received harsher disciplinary sanctions that their white peers -- even for the same infractions. Educators and advocates must now use this guidance as a tool to keep students in schools where they belong," said Leticia Smith-Evans , Interim Director of the Education Practice at LDF.
"The recommendations importantly encourage community involvement in the process of developing discipline guidelines. It is imperative that parents and students are involved in these critical education decisions. They are a key part of the school community and their voices must be heard," Smith-Evans added.
The guidance appropriately outlines different treatment and disparate impact standards that will be used in assessing the actions of school officials; and where school officials violate Titles IV or VI, potential remedies include correcting the student records of those who have been the victims of discrimination, ensuring that school personnel receive appropriate training on discipline policies and practices, and providing school-based supports for struggling students whose behavior repeatedly disrupts their education and/or the education of other students.
The guidance is a laudable example of the federal government's serious commitment to correcting civil rights violations disproportionately affecting African-American school children. It follows the U.S. Department of Education's confirmation that it will investigate a complaint filed by LDF and the National Center for Youth Law on behalf of impacted students and two local organizations -- Texas Appleseed and the Brazos County branch of the NAACP which challenges the Bryan Independent School District's discriminatory pattern of issuing criminal citations for minor misbehavior -- a practice which has a disparate impact on African-American students, who are ticketed at four times the rate of their peers.
LDF continues its advocacy to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline as it uses legal, legislative and policy advocacy to eliminate racial disparities in school discipline.