DPS reviewing recommendations on school discipline, suspensions

Jan. 08, 2014 @ 08:04 PM

Durham Public Schools officials are reviewing new federal recommendations for school discipline and suspension practices and will use them to further inform their work in those areas.

The Obama administration released the recommendations on Wednesday, urging school districts to curb zero-tolerance policies that disproportionately impact non-white students, particularly black males.

Local officials said the recommendations are timely, given the Durham’s ongoing efforts to improve a system in which black students are four times as likely as white students to be suspended. 

“The emphasis on improving school climate, promoting positive behavior, setting clear and consistent expectations, and treating all students equitably are all in line with our efforts to reduce suspension rates, particularly among African-American males and students with disabilities,” said DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth in a statement.

The Obama administration is asking school districts, among other recommendations, to ensure school personnel understand that they, not security or police officers, are responsible for administering routine student discipline.

The administration also said schools should draw clear distinctions about the responsibilities of school security personnel and provide opportunities for school security officers to develop relationships with students and parents.

A federal complaint was filed against DPS last year, alleging that its policies yield a disproportionate number of suspensions of black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities.

The complaint was filed by Advocates for Children’s Services of Legal Aid of North Carolina on behalf of a middle school student with a disability who was suspended for a total of 34 school days during the 2012-13 school year and received no educational services during the suspension.

Peggy Nicholson, an attorney with Advocates for Children Services, said she was excited about the recommendations, which fully acknowledge the negative impact that suspensions have on students and make it clear that students wrong by suspensions have a legal recourse.

“In a lot of ways, I see this as a request for complaints,” Nicholson said.

In offering its recommendations, the Obama administration pressed the nation's schools to abandon what it described as overly zealous discipline policies that send students to court instead of the principal's office.

Jane Wettach, director of Duke Law School’s Children’s Clinic, said the administration’s recommendations are on target.

“Exclusion from school should be a last resort rather than the default response to student misbehavior,” Wettach said in a statement.

She added: “Referral to juvenile and criminal courts should very rarely be needed to resolve school issues. Programs like Positive Behavior Intervention, restorative justice and peer mediation, along with adequate training for school personnel in discipline and crisis management, would go a long way to avoiding serious discipline problems in school.” 

Even before the administration’s announcement, school districts around the country started adjusting policies that disproportionately affect minority students.

Attorney General Eric Holder said problems often stem from well intentioned "zero-tolerance" policies that can inject the criminal justice system into school matters.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal's office, not in a police precinct,” Holder said.

But it's about race, too, the government said in a letter accompanying the new guidelines.

“In our investigations, we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students,” the Justice Department and Education Department said in the letter to school districts. “In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”

The guidelines are not the first administration action regarding tough-on-crime laws or policies of the 1980s and '90s that have lost support.

Holder announced last summer that he was instructing federal prosecutors to stop charging nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences, a change affecting crack cocaine sentences that have disproportionately affected minorities. And just before Christmas, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of eight people serving long drug sentences.

The federal school discipline recommendations are nonbinding. They encourage schools to ensure that all school personnel are trained in classroom management, conflict resolution and approaches to de-escalate classroom disruptions — and understand that they are responsible for administering routine student discipline instead of security or police officers.

Still, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has acknowledged that the challenge is finding the proper balance to keep schools safe and orderly.

The administration said that it would try to work out voluntary settlements if school disciplinary policies are found to violate federal civil rights laws.

That happened in Meridian, Miss., where the Justice Department spearheaded a settlement with the school district to end discriminatory disciplinary practices. The black students in the district were facing harsher punishment than white students for similar misbehavior.

Absent a voluntary agreement, the department could go to court to provide relief for individual students, among other things.

Zero-tolerance policies became popular in the 1990s and often have been accompanied by a greater police presence in schools. The policies often spell out uniform and swift punishment for offenses such as truancy, smoking or carrying a weapon. Violators can lose classroom time or even get a criminal record.

In many parts of the country, there already has been a shift toward recognizing that school discipline polices can be discriminatory, said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a think tank that specializes in social issues affecting minority communities.

Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association said his organization has partnered with the Children's Defense Fund to work with five communities to improve school discipline practices: Harrisburg, Pa.; Houston; Racine, Wis.; Elgin, Ill., and Allegheny County, Pa.

In American schools, black students without disabilities were more than three times as likely as whites to be expelled or suspended, according to government civil rights data from 2011-2012. Although black students made up 15 percent of students in the data collection, they made up more than a third of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and more than a third of students expelled.

More than half of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black.

Domenech said, “Superintendents recognize that out-of-school suspension is outdated and not in line with 21st-century education." But, he said, federal funding for programs that address school discipline issues has been scarce.


Information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.