Government offers guidelines to end school-to-prison pipeline

Recommendations on discipline follow criticism of policies that send minority students into the court system

Advocates of the new recommendations argue that some school discipline policies unfairly target black and Hispanic students.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP

The Obama administration on Wednesday issued new recommendations on classroom discipline that seek to end the apparent disparities in how students are punished for violating school rules after data found minorities were more likely to face disciplinary action or arrest.

The guidelines, which came from the Justice and Education departments, called for improving school environments by training staff, engaging families and teaching students how to resolve conflicts. They also urged schools to understand their obligations under civil rights laws, and outlined a host of federal resources regarding school discipline.

Civil rights advocates have long said that a school-to-prison pipeline stems from overly zealous school discipline policies targeting black and Hispanic students that pull them out of school and into the court system.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the problem is frequently the result of well-intentioned "zero-tolerance" policies that too often inject the criminal-justice system into the resolution of problems. Zero-tolerance policies, which became popular in the 1990s, often spell out uniform and swift punishment for offenses such as truancy, smoking or carrying a weapon. Violators can lose classroom time or become saddled with a criminal record for these and other offenses.

"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 in a statement. 

In an accompanying letter, Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote that department data showed black students were three times as likely as whites to be suspended or expelled.

Holder and Duncan were scheduled to present the new guidelines at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore later on Wednesday. 

The guidelines came after the Justice Department sued Mississippi state and local officials in 2012 over what it called a school-to-prison pipeline that violated the rights of children, especially black and disabled youths. 

The lawsuit contended that police in Meridian, Miss., routinely arrested suspended students even when they lacked probable cause to believe the students had committed a crime. The district agreed in March 2013 to change how it disciplined students. 

Inmates at the Caddo Juvenile Detention Center in Shreveport, La.
Val Horvath/The Times/AP

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Nonbinding recommendations

In American schools, black students without disabilities were more than three times as likely as whites to be expelled or suspended, according to a government civil rights data collection from 2011–12. Although black students made up 15 percent of students in the data collection, they constituted more than a third of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and more than a third of those expelled.

More than half of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were black or Hispanic, according to the data. And although students with disabilities make up 12 percent of U.S. students, they are 19 percent of those who are suspended and almost a quarter of those getting a school-related arrest.

The recommendations issued Wednesday encourage schools to ensure that all school personnel are trained in classroom management, conflict resolution and approaches to de-escalate classroom disruptions.

Other recommendations include:

  • Ensure that school personnel understand that they, not security or police officers, are responsible for administering routine student discipline.
  • Draw clear distinctions about the responsibilities of school security personnel.
  • Provide opportunities for school security officers to develop relationships with students and parents.

The recommendations are nonbinding, but, in essence, the federal government is telling school districts around the country that they should adhere to the principles of fairness and equity in student discipline or face strong action if they don't.

Education Secretary Duncan acknowledged that the challenge is finding a balance so that schools are safe and orderly but in cases of routine discipline the "first instinct should not be to call 911 when there's a problem." 

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