New federal guidelines support alternatives to suspensions

January 8, 2014

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New federal guidelines for school discipline that emphasize alternatives to suspension and expulsion were announced Wednesday by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who called on schools to “rethink” their disciplinary approaches.

The guidelines issued by the Office of Civil Rights are in response to national data that show that African American students are three times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled, often for similar nonviolent offenses. Students of color and those with disabilities are disproportionately suspended, Duncan said in a video announcing the new guidelines. He called for fair and appropriate discipline policies that keep students in school and learning.

The response to the new guidelines was positive from advocates for change.

“This groundbreaking action by the nation’s education and justice leaders will help shift the focus of school discipline to prevention and support, instead of harsh school discipline practices that have caused a nationwide suspension epidemic,” said Michael Soller, director of communications for Public Counsel, a public interest law firm based in Los Angeles. “These guidelines send a strong message that ending discrimination in school discipline isn’t just a local issue; it’s an issue for our entire state and our nation.”

The guidelines also say that schools are liable for discrimination caused by police officers or school “resource officers” and pushes school districts to clarify the roles of police, Soller said. “It says school officials, not police, should be the first responders on discipline matters,” he said.

The guidelines clarify the rules districts must follow under Title IV and Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbid discriminatory practices. In terms of discipline, schools cannot have policies that overtly target certain students, but they also would be breaking federal law if certain racial groups are disproportionately affected by the rules.

The Office of Civil Rights can initiate compliance reviews based on complaints that a district’s academic or disciplinary practices are suspect. For example, Los Angeles Unified is currently under a voluntary agreement with the Office of Civil Rights to improve the academic achievement of English learners and African American students. Oakland Unified also faced a compliance review and voluntarily agreed to implement more positive disciplinary practices to end disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of African American students.

Along with the guidelines, the department included resources for districts and schools on alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, such as setting high expectations for behavior, involving parents, and promoting social and emotional learning strategies. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that schools need funds to implement such policies.

“The federal government made many positive suggestions,” Weingarten said in a statement. “But policies in a vacuum without actual resources and support will not succeed.”

Others are concerned that the new guidelines will compromise school safety.

“While there are legitimate issues on suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, will politicizing it push the pendulum to an extreme that will result in increased discipline problems and school crimes because administrators are more focused on keeping their numbers down and staying out of the federal crosshairs?” said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, in a statement. “Will educators solve the numbers problem but not deal with the behavior and crime problems behind this issue?”

California legislators and school administrators have been wrestling with these issues for the past few years. Legislators have passed laws, including Assembly Bill 1729, introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, which encourage districts to implement positive discipline policies such as restorative practices where misbehaving students are asked to make amends to anyone they have harmed. For example, a student who disrupts a class might apologize to the teacher and stay after class to help the teacher prepare for the next day.

On this year’s legislative agenda is AB 420, introduced by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, that would limit the suspension of students for “willful defiance” of school authorities, considered a subjective category that has been used disproportionately to suspend African American students.

As indicated in an EdSource survey of the 30 largest districts, many districts have been implementing alternative disciplinary policies over the past few years, and other districts are just starting to embrace them. “Some California schools have heard the wake-up call,” Soller said in an email. “It’s time for California leaders to take the next step and challenge all our schools to end discrimination in discipline for all students, not just some of them.”

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