In a recent announcement, the United States Departments of Education and Justice called on schools to cut back on suspensions and expulsions they once encouraged. Their requests are backed with the threat of Departmental investigations into districts whose policies negatively impact minorities. But what prompted the change?
In recent years, various civil rights organizations have pushed to reform school “zero tolerance” policies. These policies require mandatory suspensions or expulsions or students committing certain violations of school codes of conduct. The American Civil Liberties Union created the “School to Prison Pipeline” Project, which shines a light on what happens to students after they have been suspended or expelled. The organizations have also emphasized that students of color are far more likely to be expelled than their white counterparts.
And that assertion has been supported by the Departments’ own research. The Civil Rights Data Collection for 2011-2012 shows that African-Americans, who make up 15% of public school students, account for 35% of students suspended once, 44% of students suspended more than once, and 36% of students expelled. These numbers demonstrate a “disparate impact” that has made the Departments take notice.
So the Departments have issued a School Discipline Guidance Package, which gives examples of discriminatory policies and practices and describes the investigative steps they will take if they receive complaints of disparate discipline among similarly situated students. The packet only applies to discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or national origin, but Federal law requires the Departments to also investigate allegations of discrimination based on sex, religion, or disability.
According to the Guidance Package, the Departments will be investigating claims that school policies:
- Prescribe or allow different punishments for the same conduct based on race;
- Allow teachers or administrators wide discretion in choosing when and how to apply discipline;
- Target racial minorities based on a tendency for those minorities to do certain neutral behavior (like wearing a particular style of clothing);
- Allow teachers or administrators to apply them with racial motivations.
If a violation is found, the school could be required to provide:
- Additional information;
- Ongoing reporting;
- Revised policies with clear definitions of violations and disciplines;
- Teacher or administrator training;
- Corrected disciplinary records to students;
- Educational opportunities to students removed from standard classrooms;
- Strategies to encourage and reinforce positive behavior rather than simply punishing bad behavior;
- Opportunities for student and community involvement in revising disciplinary policies.
This shift in policy and enforcement is notable, given the fact that Zero Tolerance was originally the result of a similar call to action from the federal government. While it remains to be seen what concrete steps the Departments will take in implementing non-exclusionary discipline, just by turning their attention toward the discriminatory effects of suspensions and expulsions they have made a dramatic shift in favor of students’ rights.