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US Education, justice departments issue new guidance on school discipline policies

LANSING — Schools will soon be encouraged to ensure their discipline policies aren’t unnecessarily removing kids from school or unfairly targeting minority students.
Federal officials are offering a package of resources for state and local education agencies to help shape fair school discipline policies.
The resources were announced Wednesday by Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The guidance comes as new research indicates «zero-tolerance» discipline policies that use suspensions and expulsions as punishment are not effective in improving student behavior or safety in the classroom.
«A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,» Holder said in a statement. «This guidance will promote fair and effective disciplinary practices that will make schools safe, supportive and inclusive for all students. By ensuring federal civil rights protections, offering alternatives to exclusionary discipline and providing useful information to school resource officers, we can keep America’s young people safe and on the right path.»
A letter detailing the guidance cites unpublished statistics from the federal education department that shows African-American students are three times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled, and more than half of students arrested or referred to law enforcement for school incidents are black or Hispanic.
«In our 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. In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem,» the letter states.
The letter cites unequal penalties for similar offenses, disproportionate referrals of minorities to alternative schools and unequal application of attendance rules as examples of policies that could violate federal law.
Duncan said the new guidance will help schools ensure they offer a positive learning environment for all students.
«Effective teaching and learning cannot take place unless students feel safe at school,» Duncan said in a statement. «Positive discipline policies can help create safer learning environments without relying heavily on suspensions and expulsions. Schools also must understand their civil rights obligations and avoid unfair disciplinary practices. We need to keep students in class where they can learn.»