By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – In the 2011-2012 school year, Black students without disabilities were more than three times as likely to be expelled or suspended as their White counterparts, according to data from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC).
During the 2009-2010 school year, Black students made up 32 percent of students without disabilities arrested—despite the fact that Black students, with and without disabilities, only make up 16 percent of the school population.
Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have decided to do something about those disparities. They recently unveiled a school discipline guidance package to assist schools in putting a stop to statistics like these.
The guidance package also tied to President Obama’s “Now is the Time” proposal to reduce gun violence.
These school discipline guidelines are divided into five components. The Dear Colleague letter explains how schools can craft discipline protocols that don’t discriminate against students or infringe on civil rights.
The Guiding Principles document offers best practices for effective discipline standards and improved school climate. Finally, there are the Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources, and the state-by-state Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations. The package also includes an overview of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, the collaborative effort between the Department of Education and Justice Department that produced these guidelines.
Although the package offers 101 pages of information plus an online legislation database, much of the focus has been on the eight-page Dear Colleague letter. Critics assert that it calls for schools to dole out discipline in proportion to demographics, pointing to the “disparate impact” section of the letter, which begins this way:
“Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race. The resulting discriminatory effect is commonly referred to as “disparate impact.”
The Dear Colleague letter comes as a direct response to the disproportionate discipline among Black, brown, disabled, LGBTQ, and special education students, as compared to White students without disabilities. According to CRDC data for the 2011-2012 school year, Black students are 15 percent of the population, yet they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled.
Further, Black and Latino students make up more than half of all students turned over to law-enforcement or involved in school-related arrests. As a result, there’s a growing phenomenon of school incidences that become into run-ins with the law, tarnishing students’ legal records. According to Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), it should rarely, if ever, come to that.
“We have struggled, as an association and as a profession, with some things being said about the school-to-prison pipeline. A majority of the officers I deal with have never put a student in jail,” he says. “That does not mean there aren’t arrest problems in certain areas, I don’t deny that. But we as an association strive to make sure matters of school discipline don’t become criminal issues. We want to deescalate those incidents.”
Canady retired from the Hoover, Ala. police department in 2011 after a 25-year career, the last 12 of which were spent as the commander of the School Services Division. He asserts that the trend of in-school arrests is the result of poorly trained law enforcement personnel, misunderstandings about the role of police officers in schools, and a lack of relationship building between students, officers, and administrators.
“In the past there have been times when an administrator tries to encourage me to arrest a student,” Canady shares, “And I have to explain to them that there’s not criminal infraction to warrant arrest, and also I have the discretion in that area. I don’t always have to arrest someone.”
NASRO’s primary message when training officers is that school discipline is not only outside their purview, but also counterproductive to their mission. Instead, a school resource officer’s responsibilities are to keep unauthorized people off the property, keep drugs and weapons out of schools, and foster positive connections with students and staff on behalf of all law enforcement.
According to Canady, the need for federal guidelines is warranted because professionals on all sides of the issue are ill-prepared for their jobs.
Bernard Hamilton, president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, agrees.
“Teachers have their hands tied behind their backs with no tools in their tool kit to actually work with kids,” says Hamilton, who has served as a bus driver, teacher, counselor, principal, coach, superintendent, interim superintendent, college professor, and associate commissioner of education in his 35-year career. “There’s not enough professional development—not just ten hours and check a box, but meaningful development that models strategies and checks on the teachers’ understanding.”
He goes on to stress that this professional development should include diversity training as well as behavioral management skills. Additionally, most teachers-in-training do not have requirements that speak to inclusion, or bridging cultural gaps. In the wake of such training, many teachers and/or administrators fall back on discipline.
“I do think we need some [guidelines], especially when schools are getting federal money for students. If you get to a situation when kids have to be removed, that’s the extreme…. But there’s a gamut of referral situations,” Hamilton says. “A lot of kids are not out of school, but are sitting in the hallway, the cafeteria, the principal’s office when they should be in the classroom.”
The other portions of the guidelines address the need for building positive and supportive school environments and keeping students within these environments, even when discipline is needed. The Guiding Principles resource draws from research and best practices to provide a set of actions a school can take to improve its climate. The Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources offers brief explanations and links to those best practices. And the law Compendium and accompanying database allow schools to check if their plans are comparable to those of other states’, and in line with federal law.
Harry Lawson, Jr., associate director for the Human and Civil Rights Department of the National Education Association, believes that the guidelines will jog the necessary work.
“It’s a really good start to help guide the discussion about what’s in place currently, and what we will be able to put in place. But we still have a lot of work to do on the back end.”
He’s referring to the concern that the package doesn’t get to the nitty-gritty of how to implement them—especially where finances are concerned. Will the necessary professional development come from federal or state funding? How will schools hire new support staff to make sure counselor-to-student ratios are compliant? Will schools have to pull resources from other areas to follow these guidelines?
These are all concerns that Lawson believes will be raised. NEA members are being encouraged to view the package as an opportunity to properly collect and analyze data on their discipline practices, identify problem areas, and then collaborate with school community stakeholders to devise a plan of attack.
Because education governance is shared between states and the federal government, these guidelines are only suggestions, not mandates. Still, there’s anticipation that they may not sit well in some districts.
“It’s going to be a mixed bag reaction, and it depends on where a school or district has been on the spectrum in terms of discipline,” Lawson says. “But if [schools] have not been paying attention, or if [they] have challenges and don’t know it, [they] might have a negative response. There are always districts that think they don’t have a problem.”
Hamilton agrees. “Most systems are pretty confident in what they do, and don’t seem concerned about federal suggestions. But hopefully [the guidelines] are implemented. If students get to stay in classrooms longer, they have better results for learning.”