New York Law School

Obama’s Plan To Reform The School To Prison Pipeline And Return Students to Classrooms

On January 24th, 2014 a fifteen-year old boy from Wake, North Carolina was handcuffed by a security guard for skipping the lunch line at his high school. While the innocent action likely could have been resolved with a verbal admonishment, the incident escalated when the security guard approached the teen, twisted his arm, pushed him against the wall and led him out of the cafeteria in handcuffs. In addition to the assault, the student was subsequently suspended for three days . Incidents like this are extreme examples of a growing, disturbing national trend called the school to prison pipeline. Many consider the school to prison pipeline an intentional and conscious attempt by school administrators to funnel “troublesome” students out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Zero tolerance is a policy that punishes any infraction of a rule, regardless of accidental mistakes, ignorance, or extenuating circumstances. These policies are applied without any consideration that these children have learning disabilities, histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out. Zero-tolerance policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, causing students to be criminalized by cops for behavior that should be handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline. Research conducted by the Office for Civil Rights for the 2011-2012 school year suggests that students of color are three times more likely than their white peers to be expelled or suspended, despite no evidence which demonstrates that these racial disparities are caused by more frequent or serious behavior by students of color.

Extreme examples of zero tolerance like the incident in North Carolina have been in practice for years. Zero tolerance, a policy which began in the U.S. in 1994, following federal legislation that required states to expel any student who brought a firearm to school for one year, or lose all federal funding, has moved far beyond original intentions to ensure safety for students and evolved into a tool to embarrass, ostracize and punish minority students. Inciting anxiety and fear in the minds of African-American and Hispanic students, the practice makes students feel unwelcome in their own schools, failing to account for the psychological effects the practice causes.

Since the inception of zero tolerance policies in 1994 social justice advocates nationwide have been working on initiatives to reverse these practices by using research and analysis of school discipline data and policies to litigate discrimination cases, implement communication strategies, and promote policy advocacy. On January 8, 2014 the Obama Administration implemented the country’s first national guidelines on school discipline.

Given the disproportionate application of discipline applied to minority students, largely African-American, and its potential future impact, it is profoundly significant that the Administration has chosen to address and reform these practices. Data suggests that students who experience exclusionary discipline policies also experience decreased academic achievement, increased behavior problems, increased likelihood of dropping out and substance abuse. As a result of this correlation, it is vital that this issue be resolved so all students are able to learn in a comfortable environment.

When a child is suspended, the effect not only serves as punishment, but it also isolates and ostracizes them from their peers, a position felt far too often by minorities. Suspending a student for minor disruptions causes them to not only lose valuable learning time and support from administrators and educators who they have trusted, but they also lose the chance to be children and make the mistakes that students of other races are permitted to make. When students of color, particularly African-American students, do even the smallest thing wrong, they are instantly demonized, viewed as criminals and thugs, turning an environment intended to provide educational opportunity and personal development, into another place where they are targeted.

The Department of Education and the Department of Justice released federal guidelines to address the disproportionate impact of these disciplinary and school safety systems in a Dear Colleague Letter. The letter examines discriminatory treatment under Title IV and Title VI and discuss the legal framework for disciplining students differently based on race, while establishing national guidelines to reduce disparate treatment. The letter prohibits explicit language in school discipline policies that requires students of one race to receive different treatment, while also prohibiting facially neutral policies which have the intent to target students of a particular race. The letter also sets forth investigation procedures to determine whether a school’s discipline policy presents a disparate impact to students of color. The letter further suggests remedies for how schools may apply new strategies.

The recommendations suggest the following remedies to reform school discipline practices:

  • Ensure that school personnel assume responsibility for administering routine student discipline instead of security or police officers
  • Enable schools to train their personnel in classroom management and conflict resolution
  • Draw clear distinctions about the responsibilities of school security personnel.
  • Provide opportunities for school security officers to develop relationships with students and parents.
  • Promote social and emotional learning to complement academic skills and encourage positive behavior
  • Provide regular training and support to school personnel including teachers, principals, support staff, and school-based law enforcement officers on how to engage students and support positive behavior
  • Use proactive, data-driven, and continuous efforts, including gathering feedback from families, students, teachers, and school personnel to prevent, identify, reduce, and eliminate discriminatory discipline and unintended consequences.

The administration plans to offer $50 million in grants to provide training for teachers and staff.

Although the guidelines are non-binding, with the exception of Title VI, the Department of Education and Department of Justice’s guidelines establish clear examples of inappropriate and discriminatory treatment. Under Title IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, students are protected from discrimination based on race in connection with all academic, educational, extracurricular and athletic activities. Under Title IV and VI, students are also protected within the disciplinary process. As a result, upon investigation, if it is found that a school administration is in violation of Title IV or Title VI, the Departments will attempt to secure the school’s voluntary agreement before the government pursues further action such as litigation or an administrative hearing. Further, if a school is found guilty of violating the Act, the federal government could also potentially reduce funding to states or local school districts.

In order for school districts to avoid such extreme measures, recommended guidance should be followed. Compliance will result in reduced suspension rates among minority students, more productive and efficient educators and better educated students.

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