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January 14, 2014 Off

Watershed Federal Guidance on School Discipline Seeks to Dismantle School-to-Prison Pipeline

Sus­pen­sions and expul­sions are among the best pre­dic­tors of which stu­dents will drop out of high school.  Stud­ies show that a stu­dent who has been sus­pended at least once is more than three times more likely to drop out of high school in the first two years than a stu­dent who has never been sus­pended.  A young adult who drops out of high school is more than 63 times more likely to become incar­cer­ated later in life than some­one who grad­u­ates from col­lege, feed­ing the pipeline from the school­house to the jail­house.

Last week the Depart­ment of Jus­tice and the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion jointly issued ground­break­ing guid­ance on school dis­ci­pline, tak­ing a cru­cial, pos­i­tive step toward dis­man­tling the “school-to-prison” pipeline.  As the Dear Col­league guid­ance noted, harsh school dis­ci­pline poli­cies dis­pro­por­tion­ately impact stu­dents of color, stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties, and LGBT stu­dents.  Recent data from the Civil Rights Data Col­lec­tion (CRDC), an impor­tant annual fed­eral school sur­vey wel­comed by the Anti-Defamation League, found that African-American stu­dents with­out dis­abil­i­ties are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be sus­pended or expelled from school.  Research sug­gests that these racial dis­par­i­ties can­not be explained by more fre­quent or more seri­ous mis­be­hav­ior by stu­dents of color.  To the con­trary, fed­eral inves­ti­ga­tions have found “cases where African-American stu­dents were dis­ci­plined more harshly and more fre­quently because of their race than sim­i­larly sit­u­ated white stu­dents.”  Other stud­ies con­firm that stu­dents of color tend to receive harsher pun­ish­ment for less seri­ous behav­ior, and are more often pun­ished for sub­jec­tive offenses, such as “loi­ter­ing” or “disrespect.”

Why are some stu­dents of color, stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties and LGBT stu­dents treated more harshly than their peers for sim­i­lar behav­ior? Some might sus­pect overt racism, but uncon­scious bias and latent prej­u­dice per­pe­trated unin­ten­tion­ally may often lead to harsher pun­ish­ments, even when teach­ers, admin­is­tra­tors, or school resource offi­cers are unaware of what is hap­pen­ing. Cur­rent research tells us that uncon­scious bias plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in our daily inter­ac­tions and under­stand­ing of daily occur­rences.  Poli­cies alone will not change that. The best pre­ven­tion is edu­ca­tion.  Bias is learned and can be unlearned. Cre­at­ing safe, inclu­sive schools requires edu­ca­tors, stu­dents, and the com­mu­ni­ties to under­stand what hap­pens when bias goes unchecked. We urge edu­ca­tors to uti­lize the Depart­ment of Education’s Guid­ing Prin­ci­ples of Reform to Improve School Cli­mate and Dis­ci­pline, which offers con­crete action steps nec­es­sary to sup­port the spirit of the new pol­icy. Among other help­ful rec­om­men­da­tions, the fed­eral Guid­ance urges schools to pro­vide com­pre­hen­sive train­ing for all school per­son­nel and law enforce­ment offi­cers sta­tioned in schools.

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