By Marian Wright Edelman
In many American schools, the holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is used as an opportunity to teach children about his life and legacy. But in too many of those same schools, Black and other non-White and poor children’s extraordinary talents are still being wasted today. Nearly three-quarters of Black and Latino fourth and eighth grade public school students cannot read or compute at grade level. Long after legal segregation has ended, Black students are still most likely to be excluded from the classroom: Black students made up only 18 percent of students in public schools in 2009-2010 but were 40 percent of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions. A Black public school student is suspended every four seconds. When Black students are so often left behind and pushed out it should not surprise us that Black students are more than twice as likely to drop out of school as White students; each school day 763 Black high school students drop out.
So I applaud the U.S. departments of Education and Justice for their recent action to address harmful school discipline policies that push so many thousands of the most vulnerable children out of school each year and into the juvenile justice and adult prison pipeline. If the education system is to do its part in dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ and in replacing it with a cradle to college, career and success pipeline, we must end the current practice where children in the greatest need are suspended and expelled from school mostly for nonviolent offenses, including tardiness and truancy. I have never understood why you put a child out of school for not coming to school rather than determining why they are absent.
I hope the new set of resources released by the departments of Education and Justice will help schools create positive, safe environments while relying less on exclusionary discipline tactics. These resources, officially known as “guidance,” will help schools and districts meet their legal responsibility to protect students from discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin as required under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the guidance offered is voluntary, school districts that fail to use effective strategies to address disparities in how discipline is applied could be subject to legal action from the Department of Education or Department of Justice.
While the guidance does not prohibit schools or districts from using any particular nondiscriminatory policy, it does call into question some policies that have historically excluded Black and Latino students disproportionately and are of questionable educational value—including “zero tolerance” discipline policies which require mandatory consequences for certain infractions, and policies that prevent students from returning to school after completion of a court sentence, which compound the often discriminatory effects of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Perhaps the most absurd and outrageous are policies which allow or require suspension or expulsion for students who have been truant—punishing children for being absent by forcing them to be absent.
The new guidance recommendations are valuable to everyone concerned about success for all of the nation’s children—including students, parents, educators, and community members. Information is available at this government website for almost every school and district in the country showing how many students were suspended or expelled, whether Black or Latino students or students with disabilities were suspended at higher rates than other students, and how individual schools and districts compare. Check your own school district now. Check too your own school or district’s code of conduct to see whether the discipline policy is focused on creating a positive school climate and preventing misbehavior, whether consequences are clear, appropriate, and consistent, and whether there is a commitment to fairness in the application of discipline.Then, follow up.
The new guidance reiterates the longstanding right of parents to seek federal intervention on behalf of their children’s civil rights. If you are a parent and believe that your child has been discriminated against on the basis of his or her race, color, national origin, sex, or disability, file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) through the online form here. Go to school board meetings and ask questions. Meet with your neighbors to learn about the experience of students in your community’s schools. Use the additional resources provided by the government’s school discipline website. With all of this information—what Dr. King called “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive”—you can make your case in the media, organize around school board elections, reach out to local and state elected officials, and come together with others to demand change.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.