Federal Authorities Crack Down on Student Discipline Practices

by Best Best & Krieger LLP
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U.S. Departments of Education and Justice Issue Guidance Warning Against Unlawful Discrimination in Student Discipline

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this week issued a joint “Dear Colleague” letter and guidance package for school officials, making the case that student discipline practices across the nation have become a civil rights issue.

Urging change, the letter and guidance package provide direction and resources to assist schools in meeting their obligation to avoid and redress racial discrimination in the administration of student discipline. The letter explains the investigative process under Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including the legal framework within which the federal agencies consider allegations of racially discriminatory student discipline practices, and provides examples of practices that may violate civil rights laws. 

Finally, the letter provides a set of recommendations to assist schools in developing and implementing student discipline policies and practices. Click here to see the “Dear Colleague” letter, and here for the guidance package, which were issued Wednesday.

The guidance notes that many school districts have adopted appropriate and effective student discipline programs to promote a safe school climate. However, research shows that the way those programs are implemented can often have the effect of discriminating against students based on race, disability or other protected personal characteristics.

This concern is heightened by the fact that many school districts rely heavily on suspensions, expulsions and other exclusionary measures that promote what has been called the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Secretary Duncan explained that students who are suspended or expelled are losing large amounts of instructional time, even for non-violent offenses, and are more likely to drop out of school and find themselves in the juvenile justice system. The “Dear Colleague” letter also notes that law enforcement is called in to assist with student discipline matters more often than necessary. 

In California, the Education Code already requires that alternative means of correction be used prior to suspension or expulsion, except in the most serious offenses. Over the past decade, many California school districts have drastically reduced suspension and expulsion rates and have shifted toward interventions, counseling and other non-exclusionary consequences for students violating school rules. In this regard, California leads many states in the nation in embracing Secretary Duncan’s message of keeping students in school whenever possible.

In light of the new federal guidelines, school districts should carefully evaluate their own student discipline practices. Some districts may find it appropriate to provide additional training to school administrators to minimize exclusionary and discriminatory student discipline practices that could become a target for federal investigation. California school districts should also be aware of these federal guidelines when conducting their own complaint investigations under the Uniform Complaint Procedure whenever discrimination is alleged in connection with student discipline.

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