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Obama administration takes aim at cutting racial disparity in school discipline

The Obama administration Wednesday issued new guidelines on classroom discipline, seeking to end the apparent disparities in how students of different races are punished for violating school rules. 

Attorney General Eric Holder said the recommendations were meant to protect the civil rights of students, and disrupt the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline." Civil rights advocates have long said that overly zealous school discipline policies target black and Hispanic students, pulling them out of schools and into the court system.

“Each year, significant numbers of students miss class due to suspensions and expulsions – even for minor infractions of school rules – and students of color and with disabilities are disproportionately impacted," the Justice Department said in a news release. "The guidance package provides resources for creating safe and positive school climates, which are essential for boosting student academic success and closing achievement gaps."


Holder was joined by Education Secretary Arne Duncan as he visited Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School. 

"Effective discipline is, and always will be, a necessity. But a routine school discipline infraction should land a student in a principal's office - not in a police precinct," Holder said. 

Duncan also wondered whether "putting children out of school really [is] the best course of action."

Holder said many students were suspended, expelled or arrested for minor infractions such as school uniform violations, schoolyard fights or laughing in class. Black or Hispanic students and those with disabilities often received more severe punishment than others, he added. 

In a statement, Duncan wrote that data show black students were three times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled, according to Reuters. And students with disabilities, despite making up about 12 percent of students in the United States, also make up almost 20 percent of those suspended and almost 25 percent of those arrested for a school-related infraction.

"It’s a major step in the right direction but there’s still a lot of work to be done," said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

 Losen and his peers have spent several years analyzing data related to student suspension rates in middle and high schools. 

He said the new guidelines make a difference because in addition to putting school districts on notice for their practices, they also provide information on what districts can do to improve student engagement and student-teacher relations. One positive move, he said, would be hiring principals who are good authoritarians but who don’t see removal as the first step in disciplining a student.

The guidelines, Losen said, are thus aimed at helping schools and districts to find more effective ways that not only reduce the disparity in punishment, but that are also going to benefit all students and keep more kids in school.

A reform of school discipline was long overdue, he added. 

Reuters contributed to this report.