SPLC asks federal government to act on school discipline disparities

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This article was published on the Alabama Political Reporter by Eddie Burkhalter on July 27, 2021.

Disciplinary policies in U.S. public schools disproportionately impact children of color, the disabled and LGBTQ youth, the SPLC Action Fund wrote to the U.S. Department of Education last week.

The comments, submitted to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, seek to get the department to update and strengthen its guidance on school disciplinary measures.

Margaret Huang, president and CEO of SPLC Action Fund, in a statement called on the federal government to help reduce racial disparities that are negatively impacting vulnerable children. Huang’s full statement:

“We are calling on the Department of Education to analyze the conditions that push so many students out of school, and aggressively work to dismantle those conditions. We know that conditions such as a zero-tolerance disciplinary culture, overreliance on exclusionary discipline, and excessive police presence in schools have led to stark discipline disparities for Black students, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth. Research consistently shows that Black students receive more severe disciplinary outcomes for the same behaviors as white students, and their behaviors tend to be perceived as more problematic or threatening.

“The federal guidance to schools on discipline must be updated, strengthened and reissued. The current guidance has left local and state educational agencies without clarity on how to effectively reform their discipline policies and practices. Unless the current guidance is updated and strengthened, school systems will continue policies that increase racial disparities in discipline while doing nothing to deal with trauma or restorative justice. Especially in the South, schools continue to rely on punitive and harmful disciplinary policies and practices – including corporal punishment – that are not restorative or trauma-informed, serve no pedagogical purpose, and are discriminatorily enforced – especially against Black students and students with disabilities. New guidance should emphasize that schools must address and respond to student behavior using a social and racial justice focused lens of equity. Allegations of civil rights abuses must also be taken much more seriously and investigated in a timely manner.”

Vague, subjective, and undefined infractions are vulnerable to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, and they account for a significant number of student infractions, the SPLC Action fund wrote in the comments.

“In Alabama, data suggests that 60% of school suspensions and expulsions result from these vague policies or practices,” the nonprofit wrote.

Local school district incident reports in Alabama indicate that in 90 percent of infraction types, Black students were more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than white students, the nonprofit wrote.

“Among the most frequently occurring infractions, Black students were nearly twice as likely to be removed from school for the same infractions as white students. National data reflects similar patterns,” the letter reads. 

recent report by the Washington D.C.-based research and advocacy group The Sentencing Project found that Black youth in Alabama are incarcerated at a rate 2.8 times higher than white youth. 

The U.S Department of Education on June 4 asked for public comments regarding school discipline. The department noted that the Office for Civil Right’s Civil Rights Data Collection has shown persistent disparities over time in the use of exclusionary discipline. 

“The data from the 2017-18 school year survey show, for example, that Black students represented 15 percent of student enrollment but 38 percent of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions, and students with disabilities represented 13 percent of student enrollment but 25 percent of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions,” the department said. 

“Our nation’s civil rights laws require fair and nondiscriminatory school discipline practices,” said acting assistant secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg in a statement. “yet we have data that show concerning disparities based on race, sex, and disability in the administration of discipline. We want to hear from educators, students, parents, and other stakeholders about how the Department can support schools in addressing disparities and eliminating discrimination in school discipline and fostering positive and inclusive school climates.”