School Climate & Safety Opinion

Hurting Those Who Need the Most Help

By Marian Wright Edelman & Daniel A. Domenech — February 26, 2014 3 min read
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Marian Wright Edelman

The federal guidance released in January by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education on school discipline policies was necessary to advise school districts of their responsibilities under the Civil Rights Act to protect children from discrimination. It helps focus national attention on the need for school districts to be more conscious of how exclusionary discipline policies are used and how seemingly neutral discipline policies can disparately impact groups of students.

Daniel A. Domenech

The guidance sends a clear message—school administrators should ensure staff members are properly trained to administer discipline in a nondiscriminatory manner, utilize a system to evaluate the impact of disciplinary practices, and address disparities that exist. The documentation and practices required for compliance will alter some school district practices.

In 2014, out-of-school suspensions are an outdated practice, and too often suspended students are the students most in need of extra support. Data show children of color and children with disabilities often are disproportionately suspended, exacerbating achievement gaps and increasing their disengagement from school.

The guidance package provides districts with tools for enhancing school climate and reducing suspensions and expulsions. District leaders recognize the importance of providing positive school climates that keep children in school and treat them equitably when disciplinary matters arise. Schools can and should improve their discipline policies and practices as part of their mission to educate all students to the highest levels.

Implementation of alternative discipline strategies, getting students extra supports, and enhanced professional development for staff and administrators may require new resources. Special efforts are necessary to engage the entire school community in needed changes and there will be push-back from some parents, teachers, community members, local boards, and even students themselves that can impede efforts. State and federal policymakers also must assist districts, schools, and their community partners to ensure districts can implement more progressive discipline measures.

But school districts shouldn’t wait and instead should seize this opportunity to make low-cost culture change in their schools and work to improve current policies and practices on suspension and expulsion. For example, in the Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin, the simple mechanism of the district office tracking suspension data more rigorously and sharing it weekly with each building principal has already resulted in 700 fewer suspensions so far this school year.

AASA and the Children’s Defense Fund, through a partnership funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies, convened more than 30 school superintendents last year to explore school discipline reform and are now providing 10 school districts more tailored assistance. Each district will employ their locally chosen strategy for policy and practice improvements as we work together to reduce exclusionary discipline and craft thoughtful policies to increase student engagement and work collaboratively with students, staff, and parents to build positive school climates. AASA and CDF are excited to work with these dedicated superintendents and their teams and are hopeful this partnership will serve as a model for other school districts eager to reduce suspensions and increase student engagement and success.

Marian Wright Edelman is the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). Throughout her career, she has held prominent positions in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People’s Campaign, and Harvard University’s Center for Law and Education. She has received more than 100 honorary degrees and many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

Daniel A. Domenech has served as the executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, since July 2008. Prior to joining AASA, Domenech served as senior vice president for National Urban Markets with McGraw-Hill Education. Domenech has more than 40 years of experience in public education, 27 of those years served as a school superintendent.

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