For years, research has shown that students of color and students with disabilities are disciplined at higher rates than we would expect in schools across the country, specifically in the use of suspension and expulsion. Indeed, students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended as students without disabilities. When it comes to students of color with disabilities, 1 in 4 black males with IEPs receive out-of-school suspensions compared to 1 in 10 white males with IEPs.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) and Department of Justice (DOJ) issued guidance to address these disparities, but recently, that guidance has been called into question by politicians as well as some educators and parents, and USED is considering rescinding that guidance. While critics believe the guidance makes it difficult for educators to foster safe learning environments for all students, supporters feel the guidance addresses the bias in the disciplinary process and welcome the clarity the guidance offers in their day to day practice.
To be clear, the school discipline guidance ensures students are disciplined fairly, regardless of race. NCLD believes the school discipline guidance helps schools create safe, equitable, welcoming environments for all learners. We support the guidance and oppose its rescission.
The Truth about School Discipline
All too often, suspensions and expulsions are used as methods of school discipline to address student misbehavior. Unfortunately, these practices are more commonly used against students of color and students with disabilities. Data shows that during the 2013-2014 school year, African-American K-12 students were 3.8 times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than white students, even though research shows there is no evidence that students of color misbehave more than their white peers.
Bias can lead to this disparate impact on students of color and students with disabilities. A study that followed 900,000 seventh graders over a six-year period in Texas found that 97% of disciplinary actions were made at the discretion of school officials. Given the lack of uniformity in policy and practice when it comes to school discipline, it is important to have guidance in place to help educators and school leaders implement more equitable practices.
The long-term impact of disparate suspension and expulsion practices is extremely troubling. Students who are suspended and expelled from school lose valuable instructional time — cumulatively tens of millions of days of lost instruction — and that loss can be devastating for students of color and students with disabilities who may already be performing well behind their peers. Students who are suspended and expelled are also at a higher risk of repeating a grade, dropping out of school, and becoming involved with the juvenile justice system.
Why the School Discipline Guidance Matters
The 2014 guidance documents provide important information and resources for educators and school administrators who want to create school environments that are safe, equitable, fair, and welcoming. While the guidance documents did not create or change the law, they reinforced the obligations of schools under existing civil rights laws and provided avenues through which school leaders could improve school climate for all students. Rescinding the guidance will take these important resources out of the hands of teachers and school leaders and will send the message that USED is not particularly concerned with the discriminatory use of suspensions and expulsions that impact students of color and students with disabilities.
Every child deserves to learn in a safe and equitable school environment. The U.S. Department of Education has an obligation to protect all students from discrimination and ensure that schools comply with civil rights laws. These guidance documents are critical to that mission and must not be rescinded.