Washington, DC – The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) and the Alliance for Educational Justice (AEJ) commend Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the announcement of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative. The Initiative is an inter-agency effort to “address the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ and the disciplinary policies and practices that can push students out of school and into the juvenile justice system,” according to a statement released by both agencies today. DSC and AEJ call on both agencies and Congress to work with youth, parents, educators and communities to confront exclusionary discipline and school pushout at the federal level.
“Our school discipline rates are higher than ever before, and our communities have experienced firsthand the harm caused by so many suspensions and expulsions for minor infractions. Young people are being pushed out of their schools by discriminatory zero tolerance policies that target youth of color at higher rates,” said Annie Thomas, 16, a youth member of Power U Center in Miami, FL, a member organization of the Dignity in Schools Campaign. “We must act together to address these issues and create safe and welcoming learning environments in our schools.”
While the details of the inter-agency collaboration are still emerging, DSC and AEJ urge the agencies to provide clear guidance to school districts on ways to reduce exclusionary discipline and racial and disability-related disciplinary disparities, to continue strengthening enforcement of disciplinary violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and to provide technical assistance for schools and districts to implement positive, school-wide approaches to discipline that improve school climate and academic outcomes.
“I am excited that the Federal Government has committed to address the problem of students who are being pushed out of schools because of zero-tolerance policies. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to have fair and just schools in the Bronx and across the country.” Sony Cabral, 15, a student leader from Samuel Gompers Career and Technical High School in the Bronx, NY, and a member of Sistas and Brothas United, an AEJ member organization. “As student leaders, we look forward to working with the Federal Department of Education to ensure that students across the country are graduating high school and going into college, and not being criminalized and pushed into the prison system.”
Today’s inter-agency announcement follows the release of Breaking Schools’ Rules, an alarming report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG) that finds school suspension and expulsion significantly increase the likelihood that students will be held back a grade, not graduate, and become involved in the juvenile justice system. The likelihood of students being suspended and expelled for minor infractions was highest among African American students, and students with disabilities. The report is a stark reminder of the harms our national reliance on “zero tolerance” has caused to our students and schools, and a clear call for stronger efforts to address these issues at the federal, state, and local levels.
On Capitol Hill, Congressional leaders are taking significant steps to address school discipline in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) has introduced a revision of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act, entitled the Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students Act (S. 919), that contains key reforms. Like current law, this bill would provide funding for efforts to promote physical and mental health, address bullying and harassment, counter school violence and drug-use, and improve school climate. Unlike current law, the bill would better target funding to the needs of districts and provide parents and educators the data they need to address issues unique to each school. The bill includes funding and technical assistance for implementing positive, preventive approaches to school discipline like Restorative Justice Practices and School wide Positive Behavior Supports (SWPBS).
A growing number of schools around the country are successfully implementing positive approaches to discipline that have improved school climate and learning. In Florida, a study of 102 schools using SWPBS found that after one year of implementation, office disciplinary referrals fell by an average of 25%. In 2008-2009, Denver Public Schools adopted new discipline policies that incorporate Restorative Justice Practices, resulting in a 40% reduction in out-of-school suspensions.
On July 25 and July 26, students, parents, educators, and advocates from across the country who are working to address these issues in their communities will converge on Washington, DC to meet with Members of Congress and the Obama Administration. These members of the Dignity in Schools Campaign will advocate for funding and technical assistance for school districts to help reduce suspensions and expulsions by implementing positive approaches to discipline like Restorative Justice Practices and SWPBS.
The Dignity in Schools Campaign is a coalition of youth, parents, educators, civil rights organizations, and social justice advocates working to ensure the human right of every child to a quality education and to be treated with dignity. The DSC challenges the systemic problem of “push out” and promotes local and national alternatives to a culture of zero-tolerance, punishment and removal in our nation’s schools.
The Alliance for Educational Justice (AEJ) is a national alliance of youth and multigenerational groups which organizes to hold government accountable for developing non-punitive school reforms to support student achievement.