The New Civil Rights Frontier: School Discipline

Racial disparities in student discipline are stark.

What does civil rights reform look like in 2014? Look no further than Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, where this past Wednesday the Obama administration announced the next phase of the civil rights movement.

Nearly 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson forecast passage of the Civil Rights Act in his first State of the Union Address, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan released the first-ever Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline (Discipline Guidance).

It is an extraordinary guidance document for schools and school districts detailing their obligations under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prevent and eliminate racial discrimination—intentional or not—in student discipline. Its recommendations reflect the positive changes in recent years in schools such as Douglass, where graduation rates are up and dropout rates are falling, in part at least to changes in the school’s discipline policies.

The release comes at a crucial time. Racial disparities in student discipline are stark. According to student discipline data included in the Discipline Guidance:

  • Black students without disabilities were more than three times as likely as white students without disabilities to be expelled or suspended from school.

  • More than 50 percent of the students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were black or Latino.

The Discipline Guidance bravely tackles how schools can provide equal access to educational opportunity for all students, regardless of race. Schools are on notice that they are responsible for discriminatory conduct by law enforcement personnel against students while on school property.

School personnel, not law enforcement representatives, are to discipline students for developmentally appropriate behavior and in a developmentally appropriate way. The recommendations encourage schools to create environments that are healthy, welcoming, and nurturing for students.

The Discipline Guidance also lauds meaningful parent and family engagement as a key component of creating a positive school climate. Suspensions and expulsions that remove students from the classroom environment are to be a last resort—employed only after positive interventions and other alternative discipline strategies and learning opportunities. The Guidance clearly emphasizes that resources are better spent on support for teachers and more school counselors.

This kind of thinking is the new wave of the civil rights movement.

Black and Latino students miss out on educational opportunities due to discipline practices that subject them to removal from the classroom and criminal arrest for behaviors such as talking back to a teacher, wearing the wrong school uniform, and “disrespect.”

While there has been much conversation about school safety of late, far too many black, Native American, and Latino students go to school and encounter police equipment and police and security officers with their law enforcement methods trained in the wrong direction: to police the students rather than protect them from harm.

Fifty years ago, in the tumultuous year of 1964, the Brown v. Board of Education case turned 10; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was born; President Johnson declared War on Poverty in that first State of the Union and promised better schools as one of his tactics. The Mississippi Freedom Summer opened to an immediate and violent backlash resulting in the deaths of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and other civil rights workers.

The Discipline Guidance is its own milestone in the long quest for civil rights. On the very same day that Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s nominee for the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and a long-time civil rights advocate, endured his Senate confirmation hearing, excited students, educators, advocates, and others gathered at Douglass and heard Attorney General Holder describe the Guidance as one brick on the “Pathway to Success” for students of color.

The remarkable partnership between the Departments of Education and Justice not only provides clarity for schools about their obligations under the law to treat students equitably in discipline, but demonstrates a modern civil rights movement, not only at Douglass but at schools around the country. 

2 Comments

This is definitely a step in the right direction!

When will people start to figure out that these are just all part of the inevitable symptoms of a profoundly flawed paradigm? Compulsory attendance laws are the fundamental error that necessitate a hierarchical authoritarian bureaucracy. Fix this problem today; a worse problem will emerge tomorrow. School reform is impossible. The perennial problems are superficial manifestations of a system that cannot maintain change because any change that enhances autonomy for teachers and children, namely education, automatically threatens the authority structure. School has never been about education. Let's finally recognize that we want a certain degree of indoctrination and stop forcing down the throats of all children indiscriminately. It is the myth of myths that mandatory attendance means salvation for poor children or minorities. They will always get the short end of all sticks in this perverted scheme. If they can't be enticed to attend the GD schools, they shouldn't be there at all. The first element of an education is initiative. Initiative is precluded by forced attendance. Coercion and education are antithetical. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is useless. Forget about fighting the status quo or the powers that be. You give them their power and legitimacy by sitting still while all children are denied their constitutional civil rights. Children are citizens, as are their parents. Education that is not by choice is NOT education. Hello. The Open Society of all organizations should be on top of this.

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