Federal guidelines address discipline in nation’s schools

Federal officials Wednesday released guidelines intended to help the nation’s schools create discipline policies that would keep more students in class, avoid unnecessary out-of-school suspensions and reduce racial disparities in punishment.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. are scheduled to jointly discuss the new guidelines Wednesday at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, where they will participate in a roundtable conversation with students.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Holder said in a statement. Both he and Duncan have long emphasized the importance of moving away from an overuse of suspensions, expulsions and arrests in the nation’s schools.

“We need to keep students in class where they can learn,” Duncan said in a statement. “These resources are a step in the right direction.”

The new guidelines come more than two years after Duncan and Holder jointly created a federal initiative on student discipline intended to keep schools safe as it addressed the “school-to-prison pipeline” that links student offenses to judicial involvement.

Their effort followed a 2011 landmark Texas study of nearly a million students that associated suspensions with academic failure, dropping out and involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Aimed at schools, school districts and states, the new guidelines are designed to promote best practices and help local officials comply with federal laws. They are part of a package of materials that includes information on legal obligations and effective practices, as well as an online compendium of discipline laws and regulations across the country.

Federal officials said that even though incidents of violence have dropped overall in U.S. schools, school leaders still struggle to create environments that are positive and safe.

Students of color and those with disabilities are disproportionately affected by harsh methods of discipline, federal statistics show.

Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California at Los Angeles, called the federal action “huge.”

“The guidelines put all districts on notice that they can be held accountable if they have excessively harsh policies,” he said. “At the same time, it provides them with substantive resources on more effective ways to improve behavior and create safe and orderly learning environments.”

“This is telling schools what they need to pay attention to,” Losen said.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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