On January 8, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary, Arne Duncan came to Baltimore’s historic Frederick Douglass High School to announce a comprehensive set of guidelines to tackle the problem of “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies in our schools. As the National Urban League and others have been pointing out for years, students of color and students with disabilities receive disproportionately more and markedly harsher punishments for the same misbehaviors as other students. This obviously discriminatory treatment is not only denying an education to thousands of minority students, it is funneling too many of them into the criminal justice system and feeding the school-to-prison pipeline.
According to data collected by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, African American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their White peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. The New York Times, in its Sunday editorial, called the treatment of disabled students “a national disgrace.” The Times cites a finding by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California that “in ten states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware and Illinois, more than a quarter of black students with disabilities were suspended in the 2009-10 school year.”
The National Urban League has long stood with parents and others who have challenged so-called “zero-tolerance” policies that have unfairly targeted students of color and done more harm than good in many public schools. In fact, in a 2007 essay in the National Urban League’s State of Black America, Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman wrote, “The growth in school expulsions and suspensions contributes to increasing numbers of children and teens entering the prison pipeline. Discouraged teens who are suspended or expelled are more likely than their peers to drop out of school altogether.”
To respond to this challenge, the Obama administration guidelines direct educators to take three deliberate actions. First, do more to create the positive school climates that can help prevent and change inappropriate behaviors. Second, ensure that clear, concise and consistent expectations are in place to prevent and address misbehavior. And third, schools must understand their civil rights obligations and strive to ensure fairness and equity for all students. The administration is distributing a resource package to schools and targeting grant money to train teachers and staff in ways to improve student behavior and school climate.
We applaud this action and believe the elimination of racially skewed zero tolerance policies must be an indispensable part of any future discussion of education reform. A growing number of school districts and schools, including Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High, have already begun to reform their approach to discipline and are seeing positive results. Suspensions have dropped 46 percent at Frederick Douglass since 2007. More schools should follow their lead. As Attorney General Holder said, “Too often, so-called zero-tolerance policies – however well-intentioned…disrupt the learning process and can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people – increasing their likelihood of future contact with juvenile and criminal justice systems.” We cannot afford to keep putting our kids at risk or wasting their potential and jeopardizing the future of our nation with this misguided policy.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.