Discipline Disparities Are Focus of White House Summit

By Alyson Klein — July 22, 2015 4 min read

By Alyson Klein and Evie Blad

School discipline issues are on display in a big way Wednesday at the White House, which is hosting a summit on the issue featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, other top department officials, plus leaders from school districts that have made headway in tackling school climate issues.

The department’s civil rights data collection showed that more than 3 million students are suspended or expelled each year (including 4-year-olds). The administration called that number “staggering.” And data shows that subgroup students are particularly hard hit.

Duncan kicked off the summit by sharing a story of his time at the helm of the Chicago public schools district. He recalled speaking to the city’s police chief to find out why so many students were being arrested. And it turned out the peak time was 8 am to 4 pm, when students were in school.

“It was our schools that were calling the police to have our kids arrested and I had no idea,” Duncan said. “That gave me huge pause. ... We found about 7 percent of our schools were producing about 50 percent of the arrests ... The school to prison pipeline is real.” He also singled out one school that brought in social workers rather than school resource officers and saw a great improvement in school climate and student learning.

Duncan said he’s a big believer in transparency. He noted that one in eight students in South Carolina are suspended or expelled, while in North Dakota, it’s one in 50. He encouraged school districts to publicly and annually report data on school climate and safety as well as discipline.

At the event, department officials planned to release new maps showing the percentage of students who have received out-of-school suspensions, both for general education and special education kids. The key takeaway? Suspensions are concentrated in the Southeast. Take a look:

Here’s a map highlighting discipline actions for students in special education:

The administration also planned to highlight tools and resources to help school districts combat discipline disparities and address school climate issues, including:

School districts featured at the event that have made headway on discipline issues include: Baltimore City schools, which revamped its student behavior system to be more rehabilitative, rather than punitive, and LA Unified, which was the first district to ban suspensions for willful defiance. (More on local policies here.)

Past Efforts

This isn’t the Obama administration’s first rodeo on discipline and school climate issues.

Efforts to change school discipline policy and practices have long been a focus on the Obama administration, bringing together officials from the White House, the Department of Education, and the Justice Department.

In 2011, the Justice and Education departments launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative to address what’s known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the term critics use for policies that they say result in overly harsh discipline and inappropriate referrals from schools to the criminal justice system. Advocates for school discipline reform have argued that such policies disproportionately impact minority racial and ethnic groups.

That initiative fueled support for first-of-its-kind federal civil rights guidance that the two agencies released in January 2014. That guidance urged schools to cut back on exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions. It also put districts on notice that they can violate federal civil rights laws through policies that have a “disparate impact,” leading to higher rates of discipline among students of certain racial or ethnic groups, whether or not those policies were written in an intentionally discriminatory manner. That warning drew criticism from some conservative lawmakers and critics, who said it may inspire schools to set “quotas” for school discipline.

Alongside that guidance, the agencies released resources for promoting supportive school climates through efforts like restorative practices and improved relationships between adults and students.

Discipline has also been a focus of Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which addresses equity for boys and young men of color. That initiative has encouraged both a re-thinking of existing policies and efforts like mentoring and public-private partnerships to improve the lives of at-risk students.

Schools around the country have responded to the efforts by adopting alternatives to suspensions, rewriting school discipline codes to weed out vague and subjectively applied terms like “defiance,” and improved training for teachers and staff members.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.

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