Federal School Discipline Guidelines: How to Stop Racial Discrimination In the Classroom

The guidelines are part of a federal initiative to end the school-to-prison pipeline.

By Julianne Hing Jan 08, 2014

This morning the Departments of Education and Justice issued new guidelines which lay out for educators their legal obligations to refrain from racially discriminating agaisnt students with their school discipline policies and explain how they can do their jobs without engaging in discriminatory practices. The guidelines are the product of a joint federal initiative between the two agencies to address school discipline issues, and more to the point, the school-to-prison pipeline. 

School discipline is a powerful tool which can have a deep impact on students’ educational futures. But there are many ways to go about it, and too often school discipline in the form of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions shuts students out of school and discourages them from staying on track, the Departments of Justice and Education have argued. "In 2011 alone, more than 3 million public school students, and over 100,000 students were expelled, leading to our students losing hundreds of thousands of instructional time," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says in the package’s introductory video. What’s more, school discipline is often disproportionately applied, with black students receiving harsher treatment than their white peers. Black students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white student counterparts to be expelled or suspended. And in a massive national survey, black students made up 15 percent of those tracked, but 35 percent of students who’d been suspended, and 44 percent of those who’d been suspended multiple times. The disparities, the federal government explains, aren’t because black students are more likely to misbehave than white students, suggesting that punishment is meted out unequally. 

In their guidance, the Departments of Justice and Education explain their rubrics for how they gauge whether or not a school is breaking the law with its school discipline practices. Racial discrimination can take several forms–it can be explicit and written into policy, but far more likely is going to involve "selective" application of a "facially neutral" policy. Second, the agencies delve into alternatives to harsh punishment and zero-tolerance policies. Most is so basic it hurts to have to see it spelled out with the force of federal law behind it: support students, make classrooms inclusive environments, draw up written policies and procedures for dealing with misbehaving students, involve parents. 

School discipline reform advocates have hailed the new guidelines as much-needed and helpful resources for educators and families. Deborah Vagins, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU, called the guidance "groundbreaking." "This guidance makes it crystal clear for schools what their obligations are under our civil rights laws and provides examples of best practices so that they can easily implement positive alternative practices," Vagins said in a statement.

Read the federal guidance in full here.