PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday January 23rd, 2014, 8:21am

Education, Youth Justice Experts Sound Off On New Federal School Discipline Guidelines

Earlier this month, the Obama administration rolled out new school discipline guidelines that call on educators to abandon harsh policies, like suspensions and expulsions, for minor infractions that disproportionately impact minorities and those with disabilities. Progress Illinois takes a closer look at the non-binding recommendations.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration rolled out new school discipline guidelines that call on educators to abandon harsh policies, like suspensions and expulsions, for minor infractions that disproportionately impact minorities and students with disabilities.

"Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today, and not just an issue from 40 to 50 years ago," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in remarks announcing the new guidelines, which were jointly released January 8 with the Department of Justice. "The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is long overdue. Too many schools resort too quickly to exclusionary discipline, even for minor misbehaviors."

Disciplinary actions that take students out of the classroom should be used as a last resort for serious infractions, Duncan added.

The new guidelines are meant to promote best practices and to help school officials meet their obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race. They are part of a larger package of information, which includes a directory of federal school climate and discipline resources as well as an online compendium of school discipline laws and regulations across the country. The package includes alternative discipline strategies such as restorative justice programs, more social and emotional learning opportunities for students, peer mentoring, and collaboration with community-based mental health providers and local law enforcement agencies. Other recommendations include things like having policies and procedures in writing for the handling students who misbehave as well as increased parental involvement. The full set of recommendations can be found here.

Overall, many experts and groups focused on civil rights and education issues said the new federal resources are a major step forward in the effort to end the school-to-prison pipeline and to ensure fairness and equity in school discipline. Others, however, stressed that schools need more investments in order to move forward with various alternative discipline methods. And some said they would have liked LGBTQ youth, who are also disproportionately impacted by disciplinary practices, specifically mentioned in the guidance.

"The material that I have looked at thus far really highlights boys, and I think that we want to be careful not to collapse the complex ways that identity functions in schools," said Erica Meiners, a professor of education and women's and gender studies at Northeastern Illinois University. "I also think that black girls, in particular, are overrepresented in suspensions and expulsions and in all kinds of school disciplinary activities, and yet the face of the pipeline persistently is boys of color, which I think that can negate the complex ways in which discipline happens to different kinds of folks."

At the national level, secondary schools suspend or expel some two million students a year, according to the Department of Education. In his remarks earlier this month, Duncan said as many as 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions at the national level are for nonviolent offenses, such as being disruptive or tardy, acting disrespectfully, using profanity and violating dress codes.

Black students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white counterparts to be expelled or suspended. And special education students, who represent just 12 percent of those enrolled in the nation's schools, make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions, 19 percent of students expelled, 23 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 23 percent of students that are placed under a school-related arrest.

Meiners says the discipline guidelines fall short when it comes to addressing students with special needs.

"When we look at the disproportionate number of kids in special ed that are pushed out [of school] or experiencing different kinds of school sanctions, I think that the report doesn't have clear enough recommendations and clear enough understanding of the depth of the problem in that realm," she said.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who joined Duncan in releasing the guidelines, explained that too many students are also arrested for nonviolent behaviors, which "should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct."

"Too often, so-called 'zero-tolerance' policies – however well-intentioned – make students feel unwelcome in their own schools," Holder said. "They disrupt the learning process.  And they can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people – increasing their likelihood of future contact with juvenile and criminal justice systems."

Schools tightened their zero tolerance policies and ramped up their presence of police and metal detectors in the wake of Congress' passage of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, explained Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA, a Chicago-based non-profit that works to promote community-focused responses to youth violence and crime.

"It’s only right that the feds would then after 20 years of that see where we were in terms of the increased numbers of young people who are arrested on school grounds and the criminalization of young people within schools ... [and] to finally acknowledge not only the existence of a school-to-prison pipeline, but to also offer guidance to schools on how to address that," Kaba said.

The new guidelines do not ask schools to scale back their law enforcement presence, but Kaba said that is something a number of community-based groups would like to see happen.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which for years has supported alternative discipline methods, said it welcomed the new guidelines. According to its own research, the union found that the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district had the highest suspension rate of all big-city school districts in 2008, with 13 percent of students suspended.

Other studies have also confirmed CPS as having some of the highest suspension rates in the nation, particularly for black students.

Out of 100 large and urban U.S. school districts, CPS had the second largest gap in suspension rates between black and white students, at about 24 percent, during the 2009-2010 school year, according to a 2012 national report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA. The suspension rate for black CPS students was 30 percent during that school year, while the rate was just 6.3 percent for white students, the report found. (Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia had the widest gap in suspension rates between black and white students at 28.4 percent, according to the study).

Also, the Department of Education released data in March 2012 that showed black CPS students made up 45 percent of the Chicago school district's total enrollment in 2009, yet they represented 76 percent of all students who received out-of-school suspensions.

Additionally, a more recent report by Project NIA found that black CPS students represented 75 percent of the school-based arrests in 2012. By comparison, white CPS students represented just 3 percent of the 2012 school-based arrests.

CPS, however, has already moved to change its student code of conduct regarding school discipline. Back in 2012, the school district scaled back disciplinary methods that take students out of the classroom.

"The district has moved away from a disciplinary system of zero tolerance to one that is focused on instructive and corrective responses to misbehavior," a CPS spokesman told DNAinfo Chicago after the release of the national guidelines, which the district said it would take into consideration.

CPS is also set to become more transparent with its school discipline data thanks to a push from local community-based organizations, Kaba said. This past December, CPS agreed to put suspension and expulsion data broken down by demographics on its website starting in early March. Individual discipline-related data for non-charter schools will also be made available online at that time, Kaba said.

In general, the school discipline data that has been made available to the public has been "painstakingly" and "overwhelmingly" gathered by young people, community groups and advocacy organizations, Meiners explained.

"One hopes that from these non-binding recommendations there would be greater scrutiny, greater transparency more accountability," Meiners stressed.

The UCLA report, which analyzed data from 47 states, found that Illinois had the overall largest racial divide in suspension rates between black and white students during the 2009-2010 school year at about 21 percent. Illinois also suspended nearly 42 percent of all black students with disabilities during that school year.

Illinois school districts outside of Chicago also showed suspension disparities.

For example, more than 23 percent of black students were suspended in the Springfield Public School District 186 in the 2009-2010 school year, while 7.8 percent of white students were suspended. During that school year, nearly 15 percent of Latinos were also suspended in the district, which serves about 15,000 total students in grades pre-k through 12.

In Mt. Vernon Township High School District 201, located in Jefferson County, 50 percent of Latinos were suspended in the 2009-2010 school year. Thirty-four percent of black students and 20.5 percent of white students were also suspended in the high school district, which serves about 1,325 students.

Farther south in the Pope County Community Unit School District 1, 25 percent of black students were suspended in 2009-2010, while just 5.7 percent of white students were suspended. The school district, located in Golconda, has a current enrollment of about 575 students.

Kaba stressed that schools need investments in order to move forward with various alternative discipline measures.

The CTU also agreed.

"Unless school districts invest in the appropriate staff and programming, this announcement will not adequately address the problem in Chicago or elsewhere," the union said in a statement.

Kaba, however, also pointed out that the responsibility to help interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline does not fall solely on school administrators.

"There are a lot of things beyond schools' control that we also have to acknowledge that contribute to the pipeline," she said. "Schools don't exist in a vacuum, so we've got to be really mindful about that."

Meiners added that larger cultural and political shifts have to go along with alternative discipline efforts implemented in schools.

"When we live in a country where states are building new prisons and funneling money towards policing and less resources towards K-16 education, then we know the problem is beyond just fixing school discipline policies, which I think are essential to address, but they're not going to solve the problem," she stressed.

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