Feds issue guidelines against bias in school discipline

Data showing black students punished more harshly and more often than whites prompt U.S. departments of justice and education to act.

Federal officials kicked up their campaign against discriminatory school discipline policies last week, issuing first-ever guidelines for school districts on how to avoid racial disparities in student punishment.

In a 23-page letter, officials with the U.S. departments of justice and education said they recognized that schools must use discipline to promote a “safe and orderly” environment but that federal data and investigations showed that African Americans were punished more harshly and frequently than whites in similar situations. Black students without disabilities were three times more likely than white peers to be expelled or suspended, according to data collected by the education department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Officials said they would actively enforce federal laws against bias in school discipline practices, reporting that they had received 1,600 complaints since 2009 and had launched several reviews of school districts. The first action was taken against Los Angeles Unified, which resulted in a 2011 voluntary agreement that requires the nation’s second-largest school district to track and report discipline data and eliminate “inequitable and disproportionate” practices.

Along with the letter, officials released recommendations for school districts on how to promote safe schools without violating student rights. These include building a campus climate with high expectations and rewards for good behavior, tracking data on disciplinary actions, creating student codes of conduct that spell out sanctions for violations, offering staff training on conflict resolution, providing adequate counselors and social workers, and defining appropriate roles for police on campus.

“A routine school discipline infraction should land a student in a principal’s office — not in a police precinct,” U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder said in an appearance in Baltimore on Wednesday with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

In Los Angeles, civil rights advocates hailed the federal guidelines as a “groundbreaking action” in pushing an issue they have worked on for years onto the national agenda.

“These guidelines send a strong message that ending discrimination in school discipline isn’t just a local issue, it’s an issue for our entire state and our nation,” said Laura Faer, statewide education rights director for Public Counsel, a Los Angeles-based pro bono law firm. “Harsh discipline rules put students on the fast track to failing grades, dropping out of school and coming into contact with juvenile and criminal justice systems. This groundbreaking action … will help shift the focus of school discipline to prevention and support,” she said.

Manuel Criollo of the Los Angeles-based Community Rights Campaign, which has lobbied to limit the role of police on campuses, said the federal action was an “important marker” of the success of community activism on the issue. The campaign and others helped push the Los Angeles Board of Education to pass the nation’s first ban on suspensions for student defiance last year.

Advocates are now working to circumscribe police involvement on campus and pressing for more funding for school- and community-based programs shown to be effective in improving student …read more