Last year, when a Mississippi kindergartener violated his school's black-shoe dress code, he went home in a cop car.
Awareness around the role schools play in priming young people for jail has become acute enough that last week the Department of Education and Department of Justice released new disciplinary guidelines to stem what has come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline. The new federal guidelines are intended to support lucid and fitting expectations and consequences for students, as well as equity in how discipline is distributed. They demonstrate a shift away from policies of zero-tolerance, a trend that began in the 1990s after the Columbine shooting, toward the creation of more welcoming school climates.
"With restorative practices, students are drawn into building a sense of community within their class and their school, and they begin to behave appropriately because of the relationships they have with each other and with teachers, not because of some severe consequence that is dangled over their heads." Effective teaching and learning cannot take place unless students feel safe at school,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at a Jan. 8 event when the guidelines were released. “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. These resources are a step in the right direction.”
The guidelines are included in a resource package for educators that consists of four components: a Dear Colleague letter on civil rights and discipline; the 37-page guiding principles that include ways to improve school climate and discipline; a directory of federal school climate and discipline resources; and the Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations that compares laws across states.
While the efforts by the Obama administration are considered admirable, some educators wonder if the new guidelines will work on the ground. “I am leery of anything that proposes a one-size-fits-all approach to anything for all students in every area of the country,” says Tina Andres, a teacher in California. “I agree that we have a serious issue with the inequities in the statistics on expulsion and suspension, and there are some good suggestions for remedies in the document. I fear that this is another in a long line of requirements that will not have the financial backing to implement.”
Andres isn’t alone. The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) supports the guidelines but also said in a statement that such changes will not happen quickly or without a price tag. “Superintendents recognize that out-of-school suspension is outdated and not in line with 21st-century education,” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, in the statement. “They also know the shift toward alternatives can be slow-going. Resistance can make implementing alternatives a difficult course to chart for school leaders. Meanwhile, funds to improve school climate and train school personnel in alternative school discipline can be scarce in today’s economic climate. Unfortunately, federal funding, once available to districts to address school discipline and school climate issues, was zeroed out in 2011.”
The new rules do not ask administrators to abstain from discipline but instead heavily emphasize "restorative justice," which empowers students to resolve conflicts on their own. In such situations, students often gather together in peer-mediated small groups to talk, ask questions, and air their grievances. The Obama administration says that schools should “remove students from the classroom only as a last resort, ensure that any alternative settings provide students with academic instruction, and return students to their regular class as soon as possible.”
Nearly 80 percent of people in prison do not have a high school diploma, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Meanwhile, black students make up 44 percent of students suspended more than once and 36 percent of students expelled, but they represent only 15 percent of students, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Consistently, minorities are over-represented when it comes to suspensions, expulsions, in-school arrests, and referrals to law enforcement—outcomes that often separate students from access to education.
Rhonda Richetta, principal of the City Springs K–8 school in Baltimore that is part of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, sees the new guidelines as the first step in changing the mind-set of educators about discipline. "Zero-tolerance policies are not effective in changing student behavior or creating environments that are conducive for learning but are still widely in place," she says. "The new federal guidelines should help to finally move us away from these ineffective policies."
Richetta said that her school started implementing restorative practices six years ago. "We experienced a dramatic decrease in suspensions and a steady increase in student achievement," she says. "With restorative practices, students are drawn into building a sense of community within their class and their school, and they begin to behave appropriately because of the relationships they have with each other and with teachers, not because of some severe consequence that is dangled over their heads."
Andres worries that at schools that have not already implemented relevant programs, "the real-life consequences for teachers will inevitably involve more pressure on the teacher and the inability to do what is best for the remaining 39 students in the classroom when one child has become both a danger and a hindrance to learning."
Although the issue of standardized testing may seem unrelated, some educators believe that its central role in the federal plan makes it key to any conversation about American education, including this one. “The federal government made many positive suggestions, but policies in a vacuum without actual resources and support will not succeed,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “Instead of fixating on testing, we should be fixating on making schools safe, welcoming and respectful with meaningful professional development, community schools, real alternatives to suspension and restorative justice programs to empower students to resolve conflicts....”
Dr. Jesse Patrick Turner, an education professor at Central Connecticut State University, echoes that criticism. “The issue is like all federal policy during the Obama administration,” Turner says. “It lacks real collaborative input and transparency. Many believe that the high-stakes testing policies of the [Department of Education] are the underlying cause of many of the problems behind disciplinary issues. Research indicates that when you up the high-stakes ante, your discipline problems and dropout rates go up. It's not the guidelines. It's the testing.”
This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.