On Wednesday, January 8, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued new guidance to reduce zero tolerance discipline policies in the nation’s public schools and to encourage schools to handle routine, non-criminal infractions inside schools instead of turning students over to police. The goal is to make the climate at school safer and more welcoming and significantly to reduce what is known as the school to prison pipeline, as young people find themselves in the criminal justice system for what are often minor infractions.
Special thanks for years of advocacy leading to this change in policy must go to an active coalition of national education and civil rights organizations who have worked doggedly for changes in particular school districts and in federal policy. They include Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Justice Policy Institute, and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have endorsed these changes.
This effort was made especially urgent when, after the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, more schools began hiring police guards, called “school resource officers” (SROs) on the assumption that police are needed to protect the well-being of children. Advocates have continued to point out that increasing police presence at school criminalizes children by escalating the involvement of the police in matters that could be (and have in the past have been) handled by school personnel.
On January 12, the NY Times editorialized on the change in federal guidance: “The guidance documents included striking data on racial inequities. For example, African-American students represent only 15 percent of public school students, but they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and 36 percent of those expelled.” “The treatment of disabled students should be a source of national shame: They represent 12 percent of students in the country, but they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.”
In a press release celebrating the change in federal guidance, the American Federation of Teachers noted that in addition to developing better training for school personnel, it will be essential to restore staff whose positions have been eliminated due to cuts in school funding. In 34 states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state expenditures for education have not recovered their 2008, pre-Recession levels. AFT recommends widespread restoration of critical school personnel including counselors, psychologists, nurses, and school social workers.