It's a well-established fact: Minority students are more likely to receive harsher punishments for infractions at school than white students. According to government data, what starts out as more trips to the principal’s office can end up being more time in juvie, more time in court and more time behind bars. It’s a phenomenon known as the “school-to-prison pipeline” and it’s a pathway the Obama administration would like to break.
A report released jointly by the Justice Department and the Education Department on Wednesday outlined disparities in how minority and non-minority students are treated and included recommendations for amending school discipline tactics.
Research indicates that the difference in discipline tactics for children of different races is not explained by "more frequent or more serious misbehavior" by minority students, either. In other words, there's something else going on.
“[S]ignificant and unexplained racial disparities in student discipline give rise to concerns that schools may be engaging in racial discrimination that violates the Federal civil rights laws,” reads the report.
Government data from 2011-12 shows that black students were more than three times as likely as whites to be expelled or suspended. And more than half of students arrested or referred to law enforcement were black or Hispanic. Nearly three-quarters of the students who qualified for special education services were suspended or expelled at least once.
“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “This guidance will promote fair and effective disciplinary practices that will make schools safe, supportive and inclusive for all students. By ensuring federal civil rights protections, offering alternatives to exclusionary discipline and providing useful information to school resource officers, we can keep America’s young people safe and on the right path.”
Suspensions and referrals to law enforcement don't always help kids. In fact, as the report points out, they can have negative long-term consequences. Student who are suspended or expelled are more likely to avoid school later, less likely to pursue higher education and more likely to have even more severe behavior problems down the line. All of these things can impact their ability to land and keep a job, and consequently, their ability to support themselves or a family.
To improve discipline practices and make sure students are treated fairly, the report outlines a variety of recommendations and offers links to trainings for teachers and other officials.
Here are some of the suggestions:
- Create positive school environments by promoting social and emotional learning, not just academics
- increase staff training and remind them they are responsible for discipline, not police or security officers
- Use classroom removal (suspension or expulsion) as a last resort, not a standard disciplinary measure
- collaborate with local mental health, child welfare and law enforcement agencies
- Work with families to find appropriate disciplinary actions
- Teach students conflict resolution skills to prevent conflicts from escalating
The recommendations are just that, recommendations, but if school districts fail to heed the suggestions, they can expect consequences.
The Justice Department sued Mississippi officials a couple of years ago, saying police regularly arrested suspended students without probable cause. The district changed its disciplinary guidelines last year.
But a report from activist groups like the ACLU and the NAACP last year outlined other instances in the state they said demonstrated a “school-to-prison pipeline.” In one case, a five-year-old was transported home in the back of a squad car for violating dress code and in another, students throwing peanuts at each other were ultimately arrested for felony assault.
The new report is meant as a way for school’s to proactively improve discipline practices but the federal government’s willingness to take legal action, such as the Mississippi lawsuit, indicates that it’s also meant as a warning: racist disciplinary measures won’t be tolerated anymore.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.