By Motoko Richjan
The Obama administration issued guidelines in January that recommended that public school officials use law enforcement only as a last resort for disciplining students, a response to a rise in zero-tolerance policies that have disproportionately increased the number of arrests, suspensions and expulsions of minority students for even minor, nonviolent offenses.
The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, and the attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., released a 35-page document that outlined approaches — including counseling for students, coaching for teachers and disciplinary officers, and sessions to teach social and emotional skills — that could reduce the time students spend out of school as punishment.
“The widespread use of suspensions and expulsions has tremendous costs,” Duncan wrote in a letter to school officials. “Students who are suspended or expelled from school may be unsupervised during daytime hours and cannot benefit from great teaching, positive peer interactions, and adult mentorship offered in class and in school.”
Data collected by the Education Department shows that minorities — particularly black boys and students with disabilities — face the harshest discipline in schools.
According to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, African-Americans without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled from school. And an analysis of the federal data by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA found that in 10 states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware and Illinois, more than a quarter of black students with disabilities were suspended in the 2009-10 school year.
In addition, students who are eligible for special education services — generally those with disabilities — make up nearly a quarter of those who have been arrested at school, despite representing only 12 percent of the nation’s students.
As school districts have placed more police officers on campuses, criminal charges against children have drastically increased, a trend that has alarmed civil rights groups and others concerned about the safety and educational welfare of public-school students.
The Obama administration’s document also set guidelines for reducing arrests and keeping discipline within schools.
“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Holder said in a statement.
The administration advised schools to focus on creating positive environments, setting clear expectations and consequences for students, and ensuring fairness and equity in disciplinary measures. It also called for districts to collect data on school-based arrests, citations and searches, as well as suspensions and expulsions, and reminded schools of civil rights laws protecting students.
Civil rights groups broadly welcomed the federal guidance. Citing “misuse and overuse of exclusionary school discipline” that fuels a “school to prison pipeline,” Deborah J. Vagins, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, called the guidelines “timely and important.”
Some school districts, including Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Broward County, Fla., have already begun to alter their policies and focus more on preventing problem behavior in the first place.
Of the federal guidance, Leticia Smith-Evans, interim director of education practice at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said, “We can only hope that districts will look at this and embrace it and try to make sure that they can move forward in a positive direction to make sure that all students in their schools are being educated.”
School officials generally welcomed the guidance but said that implementing all of the recommendations could be a long, expensive process. “Resistance can make implementing alternatives a difficult course to chart for school leaders,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which represents district superintendents. “Meanwhile, funds to improve school climate and train school personnel in alternative school discipline can be scarce in today’s economic climate.”
Some experts saw the guidance as a good first step but warned that changing entrenched school cultures would be difficult.
“We often talk about solving this problem as if it’s an easy problem to solve,” said James Forman Jr., a clinical professor at Yale Law School. “Actually creating a positive school climate, particularly in schools that are in communities that are themselves not calm and orderly, is hard work.”
Forman added that because school accountability systems focus on student test scores and other academic measures, rather than on reducing suspensions, schools might not have much incentive to keep troubled students in class. “Sometimes getting rid of these kids can help you do better on the metrics that you are evaluated on,” he said. “If a kid is causing trouble, that’s probably not a kid who is testing well, and it may be a kid who is making it hard for teachers to teach other kids.”