(CNSNews.com) - The Obama administration, concerned that "zero tolerance" policies are sending too many students to court instead of the principal's office, on Wednesday urged schools to back off -- particularly in the case of minority students and other federally protected groups.
"Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who joined Attorney General Eric Holder in speaking about the new guidance. Holder said "students of color and those with disabilities" often receive "different and more severe punishment than their peers."
While the nation's schools are under local control, they must follow federal civil rights and disability laws. And the new guidance for the nation's schools could subject more of those schools to federal discrimination lawsuits. In fact, the crackdown already is happening, as CNSNews.com previously reported.
While the guidance is "voluntary," it encourages schools to set up a "recordkeeping system" that tracks demographic information on misbehaving students, including their "race, sex, disability, age and English-learner status" along with the infraction, the discipline imposed, who imposed it, etc.
"Schools should establish procedures for regular and frequent review and analysis of the data to detect patterns that bear further investigation," the guidance says.
"As part of this review, schools (and the federal government no doubt) may choose to examine how discipline referrals and sanctions imposed at the school compare to those at other schools, or randomly review a percentage of the disciplinary actions taken at each school on an ongoing basis to ensure that actions taken were non-discriminatory and consistent with the school’s discipline practices."
The guidance says schools should also analyze the demographic data to assess the impact their discipline policies and practices are having on students -- "especially students of color, students with disabilities, and students at risk for dropping out of school, trauma, social exclusion, or behavior incidents, to identify any unintended disparities and consequences."
(Elsewhere in the document, "students at risk" are specifically identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students; homeless and unaccompanied students; corrections-involved students; students in foster care; pregnant and parenting students; migrant students; English-language learners; and others.")
The guidance says the data-collection can help schools determine whether students with particular personal characteristics (e.g., race, sex, disability, or English earner status) are disproportionately disciplined, whether certain types of disciplinary offenses are more commonly referred for disciplinary sanctions, whether specific teachers or administrators are more likely to refer specific groups of students for disciplinary sanctions -- "as well as any other indicators that may reveal disproportionate disciplinary practices."
In his remarks on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said, "[F]ar too many students across the country are diverted from the path to success by unnecessarily harsh discipline policies and practices that exclude them from school for minor infractions."
At a time when students should be developing their "chances for success," too many are "suspended, expelled, or even arrested for relatively minor transgressions like school uniform violations, schoolyard fights, or showing 'disrespect' by laughing in class," he added.
The Guiding Principles document urges schools to redesign their discipline practices and "promote social and emotional learning."
"Specific goals may include reducing the total numbers of suspensions and expulsions, reducing the number of law enforcement referrals from the school, identifying and connecting at-risk youths to tailored supports, or increasing the availability of quality mental health supports available for students.
And while bullying is unacceptable, the document says schools should help bullies "learn from their behaviors, grow and succeed." It recommends "restorative justice" rather than "exclusionary discipline."
Mississippi School System Agrees to Keep More Misbehaving Students in Class