Justice Dept Weighs In On Racial Discrimination In School Discipline

New recommendations on classroom discipline that seek to end the apparent disparities in how students of different races are punished for violating school rules have been issued by the Obama administration.

A “school-to-prison” pipeline stems from overly-zealous school discipline policies targeting black and Hispanic students that bring them out of school and into the court system, according to civil rights advocates. The problem often comes from well intentioned “zero-tolerance” policies that too often inject the criminal justice system into the resolution of problems, according to Attorney General Eric Holder put it. Rising to popularity in the 1990s, zero-tolerance policies are a tool that often spell out uniform and swift punishment for offenses such as truancy, smoking or carrying a weapon. Violators often lose classroom time or become saddled with a criminal record.

“Ordinary troublemaking can sometimes provoke responses that are overly severe, including out of school suspensions, expulsions and even referral to law enforcement and then you end up with kids that end up in police precincts instead of the principal’s office,” Holder said.

According to government civil rights data collection from 2011-2012, black students without disabilities were more than three times as likely as whites to be expelled or suspended in American schools. Although black students made up 15% of students in the data collection, they made up more than a third of students suspended once, 44% of those suspended more than once and more than a third of students expelled. In addition, according to the data, more than half of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black.

As Kimberly Hefling of Associated Press reports, on Wednesday, the recommendations that were issued encourage schools to ensure that all school personnel are trained in classroom management, conflict resolution and approaches to de-escalate classroom disruptions. Schools are being advised by the government to establish procedures on how to distinguish between disciplinary infractions appropriately handled by school officials compared with major threats to school safety. The government also encourages schools to collect and monitor data that security or police officers take to ensure nondiscrimination.

With the recommendations being non-binding, school districts around the country are being told by the federal government to adhere to the principles of fairness and equity in student discipline or face strong action if they don’t already.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledged the challenge is finding the balancing act to keep school safe and orderly, but when it comes to routine discipline the “first instinct should not be to call 911 when there’s a problem”.

According to a letter sent to schools with the recommendations by the departments, research suggests the racial disparities in how students are disciplined are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.

“For example, in our investigations, we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students,” the letter said. “In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”