Obama Administration to Fight Harsh School Discipline

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The U.S. Justice and Education departments are making disruption of the “school to prison” pipeline – which can begin with minor school infractions and can end in a lifetime of poverty – a new government objective.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said today their departments will:

Calling removal from school “inappropriate forms” of punishment, Holder was joined this morning by Duncan at a meeting of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to announce the effort.

“When our young people are locked up, we are condemning them to poverty,” Duncan told the group. The path from school discipline to juvenile justice involvement has had a particularly hard impact on “young boys of color,” he said, who are “taken off a path to success and put on a path to different circumstances.”

Announcement of the campaign, dubbed the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, follows the formal release earlier this week of a years-long study of almost 1 million Texas students that found by the time they were seniors, six in 10 had been suspended by or expelled from their schools. Nearly all of those students – 97.3 percent – received punishment for a violation that did not mandate suspension or expulsion, according to the study.

The first report of the study results were discussed last month at another coordinating council meeting and reported then by Youth Today.  Holder, who appeared visibly shaken by the initial findings of the study during the earlier meeting, called the research a “landmark effort” that should “change the way we think about discipline.” For more information about the study, click here.

Duncan, who was CEO of Chicago Public Schools before joining the Obama administration, recalled his frustration there with the number of students who were being arrested during his tenure.

“When I talked to the police chief about it,” Duncan recalled, “he looked back at me and said, ‘Guess what?’ You’re the problem.’ ”

School principals who were requesting police intervention near the end of the school day were driving the numbers, Duncan said, noting that “53 percent of the arrests came from 7 percent of the schools.”

The Texas study, which compiled data on 928,940 students who were in seventh grade between 2000 and 2003, found that just 6 percent of the 85,548 referrals to the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission  (TJPC) came from schools in 2009.

But of the 553,413 students who received a suspension or expulsion, the report stated, 23 percent “had contact” with TJPC. Only 2 percent of other students had contact with the agency.

Though Holder seemed shocked by some of the study findings, Texas teachers were not surprised by them, said Michael Thompson, director of the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, which produced the study with the Public Policy Research Institute. In focus groups with Texas teachers following the completion of the study, he said, most “really recognized that it’s not uncommon to be suspended or expelled.”

The use of such discipline does not necessarily surprise, or anger, parents, said Aaron Kupchik, who studied the disciplinary tactics of four high schools for his book, “Homeroom Security: School Discipline in An Age of Fear.”

“I sat in a meeting with a superintendent once, it was a special town hall about misbehavior,” Kupchik said. “He started describing great [alternative] programs, and I was really impressed listening to it.”

After the superintendent’s speech, Kupchik said, “Most parents’ questions were, ‘Why can’t you kick out the misbehaving kids?’ ”