On the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s State of the Union address urging Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education jointly issued new guidance to assist school leaders in ensuring that their discipline policies are drafted and applied in a manner that does not discriminate against racial or ethnic groups.
This groundbreaking guidance sends a strong message to schools that fair and equitable discipline policies are an important part of creating a safe and welcome environment in schools for all students, ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to learn, and addressing the harmful school-to-prison pipeline that ensnares so many students, particularly students of color.
The Dear Colleague Letter on the “Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline” highlights some of the stark disparities in school discipline. As demonstrated by the Civil Rights Data Collection conducted by the Office of Civil for Civil Rights, African American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended.
More than 50 percent of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African American, even though research suggests that “the substantial racial disparities … are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.” The Departments acknowledged that in their investigations, “we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students.”
The problems are magnified for students with disabilities. Students with disabilities make up 19 percent of students suspended in school and 23 percent of students referred to law enforcement.
The new guidance clarifies how school districts can ensure that discipline policies are drafted and applied in a nondiscriminatory manner. Disciplinary policies, even those drafted without discriminatory intent, may violate federal civil rights laws if students from certain racial groups are disproportionately affected by them.
EJS applauds the guidance as a step in the right direction in addressing the significant disparities in school discipline for students of color and students with disabilities.