Dramatic changes in the school discipline landscape are creating a seismic shift away from exclusionary zero tolerance policies toward less punitive – and more effective – practices. Acknowledging racial, gender, and other inequities in school discipline raises positive opportunities for implementing policies and practices that also promote civic education.

Civic education’s “equity for all” principle affirms that regardless of background and social position, students have the right to an education that prepares them for full participation in democratic society. Yet, the Center for Civil Rights Remedies estimates that “U.S. public school children lost nearly 18 million days of instruction in just one school year because of exclusionary discipline,” suspension or expulsion. (Losen et. al., 2015). Current discipline practices disproportionately exclude male and female students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBT students.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline and Discriminatory School Discipline – The Data 

Even worse than lost school days, the data confirms that these disciplinary practices significantly enhance the school-to-prison pipeline. When students are suspended or expelled for subjective, non-violent violations, they are three times more likely to experience the juvenile justice system the following year, according to U.S. Department of Education Guiding Principles, 2014. Further, Hispanic or African-American students comprise over 50 percent of students arrested in school or referred to law enforcement.

Based on the Department of Education’s Civil Rights’ Data Collection (CRDC) and the Council on State Government’s School Discipline Consensus Report, we know:

  • Students with disabilitiesare over two times more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions than students without disabilities.
  • LGBT students are three timesmore likelyto be more severely disciplined than heterosexual students.
  • African American males in secondary schools are three times more likelyto be suspended or expelled than white males.
  • African American females in secondary schools are suspended at rates 45 times higher than white females.

A common fallacy suggests these disturbing statistics represent differences in these students’ behaviors. Extensive research belies this myth. According to the Office for Civil Rights, the substantial racial disparities reflected in the CRDC data are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color. However, the types of infractions whereby students of color are suspended are discretionary – subjective, non-violent offenses such as disrespect or excessive noise. White students are more likely to be disciplined for more objective behaviors, such as smoking and vandalism (Skiba & Williams, 2014). Adults’ implicit biases seemingly underlie disciplinary decisions on subjective offenses.

Federal Guidance

Utilizing years of school district data and academic research, in January 2014 the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division released a joint Dear Colleague Letter. This letter explains how discipline disparities may be civil rights violations. When discipline practices exclude students of color at disproportionately higher rates than white students, these practices may be discriminatory, possibly violating students’ civil rights. The legal context for racial and ethnic discrimination resides within the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For students with disabilities and LGBT students, other civil rights statutes, such as Section 504, the ADA, and Title IX, could apply.

With that letter, the departments also issued Guiding Principles to address discriminatory discipline.  These principles include creating positive school climates and ensuring fair,equitable, and continuous improvement.Guiding Principles, and other resources such as the School Discipline Consensus Report, offer extensive recommendations. Two potentially valuable, related strategiesnotdiscussed in these resources are promoting civic education and developing district-level school climate policy.

Promoting Civic Education Improves School Climate

Civic education competencies include content knowledge, participation, and civic dispositions. These competencies, for students and adults, are critical to improving school climate. We emphasize the need for multiple pathways to meaningful participation and positive relationships based on social, emotional and civic skills.

Studying the civil rights movement, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, presents opportunity for civic content. Extending study of the Civil Rights Act to its current role in identifying and reducing discriminatory discipline and peer harassment provides a current connection for all students’ backgrounds. It illustrates how people’s sacrifices lead to meaningful change that continues to impact young people today. This learning could promote students’ active interest in their school’s discipline practices.

Students can directly participate in addressing discipline problems in schools. Restorative Practices, for example, demonstrate that suspensions can be reduced and law enforcement involvement avoided. One level of restorative practices calls for classroom circles. These circles foster student dialogue to respond to “harms,” set relationships right, and build classroom community. The Office for Civil Rights recommends that committees of students, staff, and families help develop discipline policies and practices and review data. Padres & Jovenes Unidos offers an inspiring example of youth participation in addressing disproportionate discipline. This Denver-based community organization exemplifies successful grass roots actions changing district and state discipline practices.

School Climate Policy as a First Step

As with civic education policy, recognizing the need for a comprehensive school climate policy requires a paradigm shift. Twenty-first century Pre-K-12 education must include more than college-and-career academic readiness. Knowing that school climate improvement is key to reducing exclusionary and discriminatory discipline, the need for policy is especially critical. Such policies should include an equity-centered definition of school climate.

Two ways of approaching policy development are through adopting a district-wide, comprehensive school climate policy, or including school climate language in targeted district-wide policies on discipline, codes of conduct, bullying/harassment, school improvement, civic education, etc. A district-wide comprehensive school climate policy codifies a set of guidelines, such as the National School Climate Standards, that districts can use to create more positive school climates.

When young people are excluded from schools and living in fear that they will end up in, or be returned to prison, they are less likely to believe they even have the right to an education that prepares them for full participation in a democratic society. The crucial shift away from discriminatory, exclusionary discipline practices, towards promoting more positive school climates is essential to achieving equity for all.

Jessica Savage, Esq., M.A., Policy & Legal Director, and Randy Ross, M.S., M.A., Senior Consultant, are both at the National School Climate Center. For further information on consultation and professional development contact us at jsavage@schoolclimate.org and rross@schoolclimate.org


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 PUBLISHED: April 16, 2015

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