Dear Colleague Letter Urges Districts to Abandon “Zero Tolerance” in Student Discipline Policies

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The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education (OCR) and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice recently released a joint “Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL) providing guidance on administering student discipline without discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. (“Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline,” January 8, 2014 available at: http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/edu/documents/dcl.pdf )  The DCL and accompanying resource guide urges schools to redesign their discipline policies and practices in light of recent data  indicating that students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school. The DCL is particularly critical of the use of the “zero tolerance” approach to discipline. The publication accompanying the DCL, entitled “Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline,” provides guidance on developing effective policies and practices to reduce the exclusion of students from school for misbehavior. http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/guiding-principles.pdf

Three general areas are examined in the Resource Guide: (1) focusing on prevention and creating positive climates; (2) developing clear, appropriate and consistent expectations and consequences to address misbehavior; and (3) establishing fairness, equity and constant improvement.  Although the DCL does not create any new legal mandates, it does provide guidance and recommendations that imply that continued use of “zero tolerance” policies may leave schools more vulnerable to claims of unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin.