Historic Federal School Discipline Guidance

January 9, 2014

The Departments of Education and Justice have released joint Federal School Discipline Guidance that lays out school districts’ civil rights obligations when it comes to school discipline. The Guidance provides legal direction for schools to avoid and redress racial discrimination and tools to implement positive approaches that reduce suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement and improve safety.

The Guidance reaffirms the work of Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) members across the country who have been organizing students, parents and teachers to fight against discriminatory discipline policies. DSC advocates for positive approaches that treat discipline as a teaching moment by holding students accountable for their behavior while providing support and keeping students in school.

Tania Romero, a school social worker in New York City and member of Teachers Unite and the Dignity in Schools Campaign, believes that “Local districts need to prioritize social and emotional learning and restorative practices. As educators we need resources--funding, training, and support--to fully bring more humane and just alternatives to zero tolerance approaches into the culture of our schools. I hope New York City will take heed of this guidance.”

The Guidance recognizes racial disparities and notes that Black students are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled. The Departments of Education and Justice recognize research which suggests that these disparities “are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color” and that “racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”  

Xavier Henry, a student in Long Beach, CA and member of the Youth Committee of Building Healthy Communities and the Dignity in Schools Campaign, said “I believe the Federal Guidance will greatly help schools all around the country. It will set a good standard for stopping the school-to- prison pipeline and a clear vision for dealing with behavior like willful defiance through alternatives to punitive discipline.” In California, nearly half of all suspensions are for the minor misbehavior “willful defiance”, which disproportionately affect students of color, students with disabilities and LGBTQ youth.

Joyce Parker of the Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable and the Dignity in Schools Campaign said, “In the delta of Mississippi most of the schools are made up of predominantly Black students and the policies are discriminatory because students receive overly harsh punishments denying them access to critical learning time. We are glad that the federal government has recommended in this Guidance that schools’ written discipline policies should limit the use of out-of-school suspensions to the most severe disciplinary infractions that threaten school safety. We commend districts such as Greenville Public School District which is already moving in that direction.”

The Guidance includes an important Appendix with recommendations for schools and districts on promoting positive school climates, providing training for staff, ensuring that students and parents participate in developing and implementing discipline policies, emphasizing positive interventions over removal and ensuring data collection and monitoring of discipline.

Today’s school discipline rates are at their all-time highs – practically double the rates of the 1970s. Suspensions, expulsions and arrests at school predict dropout and place a significant strain on families, schools, communities and state budgets alike, as noted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Council of State Governments and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

This is an important program for advocates, students and schools working against school pushout and harsh discipline practices. Read more about these federal efforts and see the full Guidance in the link below this video, featuring Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: