Federal officials unveil school discipline guidance in visit to Baltimore

Federal education and justice officials unveiled during a visit to Baltimore on Wednesday the first set of national school discipline guidelines to reduce out-of-school suspensions and address the disproportionate suspension rates of students of color and those with disabilities.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder jointly announced the comprehensive package of guidelines at Frederick Douglass High School, the first time the federal government has issued guidance on school discipline.


Duncan said the effort was prompted by years of research illustrating how discipline is "not applied as effectively as it could be across our nation's schools." And he said that around the nation, where nonviolent offenses make up roughly 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions, the over-reliance on suspensions is clear.

"The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is, frankly, long overdue," Duncan said. "Too many schools resort too quickly to exclusionary discipline, even for minor misbehavior."


Duncan held Maryland up as a leader in school discipline; the state is wrapping up a four-year effort to overhaul its regulations.

The state school board has been working to eliminate so-called "zero tolerance" policies and practices that keep students out of school for long periods of time without access to an education. The state board is scheduled to vote on the new regulations this month.

But Duncan pointed out that the state has problems to address.

"Exclusionary discipline is so common that in some cases, pre-school students 3 and 4 years old are getting suspended," he said. "Here in Maryland, 91 pre-K students were suspended or expelled in the 2011-2012 school year."

The discipline guidance package contains "guiding principles" for developing policies that create a positive school climate and use suspensions as a last resort, as well as a letter that explains how to enforce policies without violating civil rights. It also provides a directory of federal resources and a compendium of laws and regulations.

Duncan said his office also would be providing grants aimed at helping districts improve school climate. And he added that, though the guidelines call for school staff to use other interventions that could require more resources before resorting to suspensions, the guiding principles are more about a change of mindset than spending money.

Duncan also said data collected by the Office for Civil Rights point to a troubling trend of the rate at which African-American students and students with disabilities face punishment.

"Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today," Duncan said. "It's not just an issue from 30, 40 years ago."


Holder said that while the guidelines aren't enforceable, his office would continue to pursue any complaints about racial discrimination in discipline policies.

Holder said that zero-tolerance policies "make students feel unwelcome in their own schools."

"We must never waver in our determination to keep our students safe and to hold students to high standards of accountability whenever their conduct disrupts the learning process or harms those around us," Holder said. "But effective discipline is, and always will be, a necessity. But routine school discipline infractions should land students in the principal's office, not in a police precinct."

Bebe Verdery, director of the Education Reform Project at Maryland's American Civil Liberties Union, said the state has taken important steps to reform its approach to discipline, and she looks forward to the federal guidelines sparking a nationwide movement in the same direction.

"This is very significant," Verdery said. "For the first time, the federal government is weighing in on student discipline issues and signaling that schools have to end practices of disproportionate suspensions of African-American students and students with special needs."

Duncan also praised Frederick Douglass — where suspensions have dropped by 46 percent since 2007 — for its drastic transformation under new leadership and with the help of millions of dollars in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education.

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Duncan and Holder also held a roundtable discussion with Frederick Douglass students, who talked about how their principal has empowered them to hold their peers accountable.

Davon Monette, an 11th-grader at Frederick Douglass, said Duncan and Holder seemed most interested in the school's peer mediation program.

"They like the idea that we got to handle stuff," he said. "They wanted other schools to be like us."

Monette said Duncan and Holder's visit signified how far the school has come.

"We used to have visitors," Monette said. "But it was usually the police."