How Zero-Tolerance School Discipline Policies Undermine Equal Access to Education

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By Stephanie Presch, Content Specialist, UnidosUS

“Education may be the most important function of state and local government,” Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said during a briefing on school discipline earlier this month on Capitol Hill. But she noted that zero-tolerance policies meant to make students safer have harmed children of color, undermining federal civil rights laws on equal access to education.

Co-sponsored by UnidosUS, the briefing featured the release of a new Learning Policy Institute report “Protecting Students’ Civil Rights: The Federal Role in School Discipline,” outlining practices the  federal government could implement to protect all students in schools.

The briefing and the report centered on a guidance package by the Obama administration that was issued in order to help schools understand their legal obligations under federal civil rights law and ensure discipline practices are fair for all children. However, on December 21, 2018, the Trump administration chose to rescind the guidance, despite evidence that the guidance was a having a positive effect in schools.

Even though the rescission removed the guidance, schools still have the responsibility to uphold the law and ensure that students are able to attend school without being subjected to discrimination.

In fact, Ifill reminded the audience that this year marks the 65th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark decision that led to school desegregation. The Court’s role in that case, Ifill emphasized, is a key example of how the federal government can protect students in the classroom.

“We know that the Supreme Court outlawed separate but equal education. We should not brush past that as though that was some inevitable thing that was going to happen in this country,” said Ifill.

Student Empowerment Over Discipline

“When we have punitive responses to behavior, we’re teaching students that they don’t have value—that they are their action,” said Carolyne Quintana, Principal at Bronxdale High School in New York City.

Quintana went on to say that when she started as principal, only 30% of students were on track to graduate. One of the steps that Quintana took at her school was establishing restorative justice circles, which teaches students to be accountable for their actions and internalize a moral code as they work with their peers to figure out ways to remedy the harm they’ve caused. She also made a point of including the school’s resource officers in the circles, so that they would be able to get to know the students better, and the students could feel supported by them.

Johana Molina, a senior at Bronxdale High School and President of the Mediation Club, told the audience how students at her school are trained as mediators for their classmates.

Molina noted that overall, the presence of the club at Bronxdale has helped to make the school safer. “It has helped a lot of students not have a fight,” she said. “They do request mediation when they’re having an issue.”

In the absence of these policies, schools often perpetuate discriminatory practices, notes the Learning Policy Institute report.

“Students who are removed from school lose instructional time and tend to have lower academic success, higher rates of grade retention, and lower graduation rates, and are more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system,” it states, adding that this is particularly true for students of color, who are more likely to be penalized at school for “willful defiance” when they’re just acting like kids.

When Normal Child Behavior is Seen as Criminal

“Do black and brown girls and boys get to be children? Do they have the right to be children?” Ifill asked the audience.

 “There is a pathologization of Black families for normal behavior,” explained Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, National Field Organizer for the Dignity in Schools campaign.

Then Judith Browne Dianis, Executive Director at the Advancement Project National office, provided a powerful example that silenced the room as she recounted it.

She referenced a 2005 case, in which police arrested a five-year-old girl for having a tantrum during a jellybean counting game at school. She went on to detail how the girl screamed for her mother from the back of the patrol car.

Ifill also noted a case from January of this year, in which four Black and Latino girls were strip searched because they were giggling and “seemed hyper.” As they were searched, school officials “put their hands down the girls’ bras and asked them to pull their pants down,” she said.

In that case, authorities did not heed the girls’ request to contact their parents. Instead, they  issued one girl an in-school suspension and sent the other to an alternative program for students with multiple discipline problems.

Findings from the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection shows that Latino students have also been disproportionately targeted by zero-tolerance school discipline policies. Hispanic males comprise 13% of male student enrollment, but 15% of male out-of-school suspensions and 16% of male expulsions.

For example, a young person may be acting out or acting strangely because of something else going on in their personal lives, and zero tolerance policies can get in the way of getting the fuller picture.

“I think of a young man who was actually killed because he was sent out of a classroom. He was killed in a drive-by waiting for a bus to go home,” Dianis said.

Spotlight on Florida: Allowing Teachers to Bear Arms at School

On April 23, Florida passed a package of restrictions on gun ownership. Part of this package, however, included a provision that would allow some teachers to carry firearms on school grounds. This legislative action stems from the findings in December 2018, of a state commission set up to investigate the Parkland shooting concluding that the response time to the shooter could have been improved if faculty had been carrying firearms.

But the violence prevention program Everytown for Gun Safety notes that the very presence of a gun can be dangerous to children.

“There is no evidence that arming teachers will protect children in schools. To the contrary, research indicates that arming teachers will make children less safe,” notes the Everytown website.

It goes on to cite an extensive body of research showing that more than one-third of children whose parents have guns in their home have reported handling their parents’ gun without their knowledge. Additionally, when children have access to firearms, their risk of death by suicide is tripled, and their risk of being killed by homicide doubles.

And civil rights activists are especially worried about how arming teachers could disproportionately endanger the lives of children of color or even students with disabilities. Florida State Rep. Shevrin Jones (D) attempted to address this by introducing an amendment that would have required school officials carrying firearms to undergo implicit bias training, but it failed.

In spite of these continued mass shootings, Dianis noted that even though schools have continued to deal with mass shootings, this has not led to any meaningful reform, especially not for students of color. In fact, schools that are predominantly attended by children of color often have more security measures in the form of metal detectors and police officers. “Meanwhile the schools that had the shooting don’t get that, and we still don’t have gun control,” Dianis said.

It’s not lost on civil rights advocates that it was also the school shooting in Parkland, FL that spurred Trump to create the Federal Commission on School Safety which issued the report recommending rescission of the federal school discipline guidance. The Broward County school district had been using a discipline policy at the time of the shooting that had been held up as a model by the Obama administration.

Protecting Students in the Absence of Official Guidance

UnidosUS is among several civil rights groups unequivocally opposing the rescission of the school discipline guidelines. To that end, the organization also signed on to a letter from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights that was sent to the U.S. Department of Education which expressed the coalition’s opposition to the rescission of the guidance.

“It’s important to get the message out there that even though the guidance was rescinded, it is still against the law to discriminate against students based on race in school discipline practices,” says Amalia Chamorro, Associate Director of Education Policy. “Schools still have a legal responsibility, and parents and students need to be informed about their civil rights protections.”

“We need the government monitoring and making sure that students are protected,” Lynn Jennings, Senior Director of National and State Partnerships at The Education Trust told the audience.

“They just need that reminder that they won’t be violating anything. There are other best practices that they can look to,” said Ashley Harrington, Director of the National Social Justice Program for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).

Above all, Ifill urged the audience to continue to be resilient in the fight for safer schools and more equitable policies.

“We can’t throw up our hands and say this is a hostile administration—we have the right to demand that this federal government deploy the resources it has available to uphold civil rights laws,” said Ifill.

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