Classroom discipline policies became the focus of the Obama administration on Wednesday as it urged schools to abandon “zero tolerance” policies that it says encourage racial discrimination. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, their investigations revealed that African-American and Hispanic students were given harsher and more frequent disciplinary actions by their schools compared to similarly-situated white students. “In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.” Holder added.
The Justice Department and the Education Department have sent guidelines to the country’s school districts mainly to correct the practice of sending erring students directly to a police precinct rather than the principal’s office for disciplinary actions. The new non-binding federal classroom discipline guidelines also encourage schools to:
- train their staff on classroom management, handling classroom disruptions and conflict resolutions;
- allow school security officers to develop relationships with students and parents; and
- understand that student discipline is the responsibility of the school and not the police and security officers.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said these classroom discipline guidelines must be balanced with the need of the school for a safe and orderly school environment. The recommendation likewise encouraged schools to collect and monitor data for use by the school security and the police that will ultimately ensure non-discriminatory practices.
If schools are found to have violated federal civil rights laws, the government will attempt to work out voluntary settlements. For example, the Justice Department led a settlement with a school district over evidence of discriminatory disciplinary policies where black students faced harsher penalties compared to white students for similar offenses. Without a voluntary agreement, the government would have had to go to court to correct these unfortunate practices at schools. In 2010, the NYPD were sued by the New York Civil Liberties Union for the use of excessive force, wrongful arrests and harassment they implemented in the city’s schools.
In government civil rights data collected for the period 2011-2012, the results showed that in American schools the likelihood that a black student will be suspended or expelled is more than three times than for a white student. The respondents of this study comprised 15 percent black students, but more than one third who were suspended once belonged in this group. Forty-four percent who were suspended more than once and more than a third of the students who were expelled also belonged to this group. The results also revealed that more than half of school-related arrests by law enforcement involved black or Hispanic offenders.
According to Beverly Hutton, a former high school principal in New Jersey who is also the current director of professional development at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, disparity actually exists in classroom discipline and “Numbers don’t lie. They are there.” As school districts placed more police officers on campus, criminal charges against the students also increased.
What is good news for many is that even before the new guidelines were sent, school districts in the U.S. have been taking a stand and implementing actions meant to adjust policies that will protect minorities in their schools.
The school district in Buffalo, New York, for example, has reduced suspensions as part of their new code of conduct. This came after a 15-year-old student died in 2010 in a drive-by shooting. He was shot as he left school to serve an out-of-school suspension. His offense to warrant such suspension was wandering the halls of the school. In 2012, the school board of Fairfax County, Virginia voted to temper the punishments for marijuana possession and introduce a new policy on parental notification. This change of policy was prompted after two students who were given disciplinary actions committed suicide.
It is hoped that with the new classroom discipline policies being urged, the different school boards across the country may comply to prevent racial discrimination from happening.
By Roberto I. Belda