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Can We Fix the Race Problem in America's School Discipline?

Four solutions from a new federal report on discriminatory discipline policies

New federal guidelines seek to curb racial disparities in school discipline procedures, which can end up feeding students to the 'school-to-prison pipeline'
Phillipe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images
January 24, 2014 12:35 PM ET

When Marlyn Tillman's family moved from Maryland to Georgia, her oldest son was in middle school. Throughout his eighth grade year, he was told by his school's administration that his clothing was inappropriate. Even a simple North Carolina t-shirt was targeted – because it was blue, they said, it was flagged as "gang-related."

Things got worse when Tillman's son got to high school, where he was in a small minority of black students. While he was in all honors and AP classes, he received frequent disciplinary referrals for his  style of dress throughout ninth grade and tenth grade. Frustrated, his mother asked for a list of clothing that was considered gang-related. "They told me they didn't have a list, they just know it when they see it," Tillman tells Rolling Stone. "I said, I know it when I see it, too. It's called racism."

One day, Tillman's son went to school wearing a t-shirt that he had designed using letters his mother had bought at the fabric store – spelling out the name of his hometown, his birthday and his nickname. He was again accused of gang involvement and and told that his belongings would be searched. "He'd just been to a camp where they gave out pocket-sized copies of the Constitution," Tillman recalls. "My son whips out that copy and tells them that they're violating his rights."

The administrators accused the teen of disrespect. He was suspended and pulled out of his AP classes. That's when Tillman – convinced that her son had been targeted because of his race – went to Georgia's American Civil Liberties Union. 

What happened to Tillman's son might seem extreme, but it's nothing exceptional for students of color in the United States. In fact, new data from the federal government confirms that such practices are ubiquitous. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education released a set of documents detailing how school discipline policies across the country may be violating the civil rights of American elementary and secondary school students. Nationwide data from the Office for Civil Rights found that black and Latino students were more likely than their white peers to receive harsher punishments for the same type of behavior; students with disabilities also faced disproportionately harsh discipline. Punishments like suspensions and expulsions mean that those same children often lose classroom time and experience a significant disruption to their education. The documents, collectively known as the Federal School Discipline Guidance, urge school districts to adopt policy changes to mitigate those discriminatory practices.

While study after study has documented racial disparities in school discipline in districts across the country, the guidance's federal data illustrates the sweeping extent of the problem. So what can we do to make our schools fairer? The federal guidance recommends a number of best practices to ensure that schools recognize, reduce and eliminate disproportionate treatment of students of color and students with disabilities, while fostering a safe and supportive educational environment. Here are a few of the best ideas:

1. Identify discriminatory discipline

Most of the time, discrimination happens unintentionally. It's not that policies explicitly target one race over another, but that, in practice, students of certain races are treated differently – even if a disciplinary policy appears neutral, like the dress code at Tillman's son's high school.

"One of the first pieces of this work is to gain a better understanding of why kids are actually disciplined," explains ACLU of Pennsylvania community organizer Harold Jordan, author of an extensive report on discipline and policing in Pennsylvania public schools. In districts with high rates of suspensions and high racial disparities, Jordan says, "Officials tend to bring large numbers of vaguely formulated charges against kids, for things like 'defiant behavior' and 'disruption.'" For example, black students received over half of the suspensions for "profanity" and "insubordination" in New York City over the past decade – despite representing only a third of the student population – according to the Dignity in Schools campaign. The elimination of these broad and subjective categories, argues Jordan, is an important first step in preventing discriminatory discipline. Increasing the scope and specificity of data collection, and diligently reviewing that data, will help schools to understand who is being punished and why.

2. Don't just enforce behavior – teach it

School is meant to provide a comprehensive education to children. But when it comes to behavior, zero-tolerance policies don't leave much room for growth. "Everyone will say, 'we have more students in the streets than in schools,' but they'll never think that it's because we punish young people before they even go to middle school and high school and don't give them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes," says Neissa Fils, a junior at Bronx International High School.

Fils is involved with something called "restorative justice" at her school, an alternative approach to discipline that emphasizes communication, accountability and conflict resolution. She says that she's seen firsthand how much it has helped her and her classmates. "We help give them a chance to know how to solve conflict," she explains. The opportunity for the students to have a voice, she says, has increased students' investment in school and decreased behavior problems.

Each week, every student is invited to meet and discuss any issues going on at home or at school. They can communicate with their principal, school social worker, guidance counselor and even with the NYPD School Safety Agents (SSAs) who monitor their school. If conflict arises between students and the SSAs, the restorative justice meeting provides an opportunity for them to speak with one another.

Restorative justice and other positive behavior support programs have been successful in reducing suspensions in the Bronx, where Fils goes to school, as well as in schools in Denver, West Philadelphia, Chicago, Florida and Los Angeles, according to data from Dignity in Schools.

3. Involve students, families and educators, not just police

The NYPD School Safety Agents in Fils' school are not rare. There are over 5,000 of them in New York City schools alone, and law enforcement officials are increasingly common in schools all over the country. For students, being disciplined by an officer rather than an educator means an increased likelihood of harassment, handcuffs, arrests and court dates – all of which can have a longstanding educational and emotional impact on a child.

"The guidance, in effect, makes a general statement that police should not be involved in regular discipline, but only matters that are more serious or criminal in nature, or that pose a safety threat," explains Jordan. While it's a step forward, he says, actually putting it into practice is another matter. The more specific the policy – spelling out exactly what behavior warrants police intervention – the less room there is for racial bias to influence the treatment of students.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) praised the government's policy suggestions in a press release, but emphasized that specific supports – including professional development, strong community schools, restorative justice programs and restored budgets – are needed to successfully follow through.

4. End zero-tolerance policies and reduce suspensions and expulsions

After seeing how her son was targeted, Tillman became an organizer with Gwinnett SToPP – a parent organization fighting to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. She says that harsh discipline policies are ineffective, and often traumatic, for young people's developing brains. "Criminalizing kids for undesirable age-appropriate behavior does not improve the behavior," she says. "Kids are not little adults." Determining appropriate consequences is especially important when it comes to students with disabilities, who may have unique behavioral and learning needs.

"Exclusionary and punitive student discipline policies implicate a fundamental civil rights issue," argues Rebecca Kelly Arnold, associate counsel for the Legal Mobilization Project at the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. Policies that remove students from the classroom leave them behind academically, which can lead to behavior issues – creating a cycle that's difficult to break. Arnold adds that "exclusionary policies exacerbate the disproportionate incarceration of people of color," since students of color are targeted at higher rates, and students pushed out of school are much more likely to end up in prison.

Of course, school-based discrimination does not exist in a vacuum. Advocates like Arnold point to broader policy changes that have influenced the zero-tolerance educational climate, such as the "tough on crime" mentality of the 1980s. "This is not a new phenomenon," says Leticia Smith-Evans, interim director at the Education Practice at the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Schools were legally segregated just 60 years ago."

But advocates agree that the federal government has taken an important step in acknowledging the problem and outlining solutions. "We do have systemic issues when it comes to race in this country," says Smith-Evans. "This guidance is a step towards eradicating those issues."

Tillman's son is now 25. Though his experience with harsh school discipline is long behind him, it still upsets her to think about how powerless she and her son felt. She hopes to see school discipline policies that hold kids accountable while still supporting them. "You make them face the music, but you make sure that what happens is appropriate," she says. "And you stand beside them."

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