The United States Department of Education, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, released new guidelines Jan. 8 aimed at ensuring the equal application of school discipline.

Officials said the package of recommendations seeks to help schools create a safe environment while ensuring that students of color are not disproportionately targeted for life-changing disciplinary measures that bear long-term negative educational consequences.

“Effective teaching and learning cannot take place unless students feel safe at school,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Positive discipline policies can help create safer learning environments without relying heavily on suspensions and expulsions.”

Activists have long complained that Black and Hispanic students are often disciplined more harshly and more frequently than other students. During the 2011-2012 school year, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that while African Americans represented only 15 percent of total students in the latest Civil Rights Data Collection, Black students without disabilities represented 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled. More than 50 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Black or Latino.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “This guidance will promote fair and effective disciplinary practices that will make schools safe, supportive and inclusive for all students. By ensuring federal civil rights protections, offering alternatives to exclusionary discipline and providing useful information to school resource officers, we can keep America’s young people safe and on the right path.”

The resource package consists of four components:

“Dear Colleague” guidance letter on civil rights and discipline: Prepared in conjunction with the Justice Department, the opening letter describes how schools can administer student discipline while avoiding illegal racial and ethnic discrimination.

The Guiding Principles: This document draws from emerging research and best practices to describe three key principles and related action steps that can help guide state and local efforts to improve school climate and school discipline.

The Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources: This directory offers schools an index of the extensive federal technical assistance and other resources related to school discipline and climate.

The Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations: This online catalogue lists the laws and regulations related to school discipline in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Civil rights groups praised the Obama administration for the new recommendations, which include suggested training for school personnel on classroom management techniques and revising discipline policies to provide clear definitions of infractions.

“These guidelines not only provide evidence of discrimination in disciplining students, but more importantly, provide remedies to help solve the problem Tanya Clay House, public policy director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. “The issuance of today’s guidance provides a fresh opportunity to examine trends in school disciplinary actions and to help eliminate the racial gap in educational achievement.”

“This is a victory for all who care about creating environments where students can thrive,” stated Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU senior legislative counsel.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, praised the new guidelines but added that they are only a first step.

“Today’s release of long overdue guidance on racial discrimination in school discipline is an important step forward in creating a more equitable education system. But this guidance alone will not eliminate our country’s dropout crisis, race-and-class-based achievement gaps, and the school-to-prison pipeline,” he said in a statement. “This administration must do more than provide suggestions to schools on how to narrow these unlawful disparities. It must also use enhanced enforcement and investigation and the power of the purse to require the elimination of these disparities outright.”


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO