WASHINGTON—U.S. Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) led nine of their Senate colleagues in calling on the Biden administration to address discriminatory and punitive school disciplinary measures. In a letter to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Attorney General Merrick Garland, the senators asked the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education to strengthen guidance on nondiscriminatory school discipline and advise schools to focus on restorative justice practices. Harsh discipline policies have led to a disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions for students of color, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities.
“Exclusionary school policies do not work; they impede student success, with research showing that strict school discipline inhibits a student’s chance of attending an institution of higher education,” the senators wrote. “Unfortunately, these policies have led to sharp increases in school expulsions and suspensions. Black and Hispanic students, American Indian and Alaska Native students, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities and English learners experience the brunt of the consequences, shuffling them into the school-to-prison pipeline, denying them an education, and limiting their future opportunities.”
Under the Obama administration the Department of Education issued guidance on school discipline that helped mitigate the criminalization of students – especially Black students – in the education system, but much of this guidance was withdrawn under the Trump administration. This letter calls on the current administration to:
Apart from Murphy, Duckworth, and Bennet, this letter is signed by U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.).
This letter request is supported by the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and Access Living.
Full text of the letter is available here and below:
Dear Secretary Cardona and Attorney General Garland:
We write to express our concern over the effect of punitive and discriminatory school disciplinary measures. All students, no matter their race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity) or disability, deserve access to a safe, inclusive and supportive learning environment.
The Federal Government plays a critical role in ensuring that schools provide equitable environments for students, free of discrimination. Brown v. Board of Education, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act all affirm this mandate.
While we are grateful for your work to support students during the pandemic, there is much more work to do to protect students from the harms of overly harsh discipline practices. Out-of-school suspensions have escalated significantly since the 1970s. Schools started adopting harsh discipline policies like “zero tolerance” in the 1990s. Exclusionary school policies do not work; they impede student success, with research showing that strict school discipline inhibits a student’s chance of attending an institution of higher education.
Unfortunately, these policies have led to sharp increases in school expulsions and suspensions. Black and Hispanic students, American Indian and Alaska Native students, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities and English learners experience the brunt of the consequences, shuffling them into the school-to-prison pipeline, denying them an education, and limiting their future opportunities.
According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office review, elementary and secondary schools disproportionately discipline Black students, American Indian and Alaska Native students, male students and students with disabilities. Although Black students represent 15.5 percent of the public school enrollment, they account for 39 percent of students suspended from school. As exclusionary school discipline policies continue to exacerbate racial inequities within public education, studies have shown fairer and more effective alternatives. Building positive school climates, including through the faithful implementation of restorative justice practices, which provides social-emotional support to students and holds them accountable, can help reduce racial disparities by building trust instead of pain.
Under the Obama administration, we began to see changes at the State and local level to mitigate the criminalization of Black students in the education system with the promotion of the restorative justice framework. The Obama administration’s school discipline guidance, issued in 2014 to assist schools receiving Federal financial assistance, improved schools’ understanding of their obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and in doing so, helped students receive a safe, equitable education. Following the implementation of alternative disciplinary measures, school suspensions began to decrease. In fact, data from the Office for Civil Rights reported that students were less likely to be suspended in 2016 than they were in 2012—though racial disparities were still present.
In 2019, however, the Trump administration rescinded this guidance. Under the Trump administration, the Department of Education withdrew nearly 600 pieces of guidance set forth under the Obama administration. Although the Trump administration rescinded the Obama administration’s discipline guidance, it did not change local education entities’ obligations under the law. This rescission frustrated school districts’ ability to understand their Federal civil rights obligations.
These events demonstrate how crucial it is that the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice (Departments) fully enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act. These Departments must protect students from discrimination. The enforcement of students’ civil rights is particularly critical as schools continue to reopen safely and students readjust to the physical classroom setting and navigate the emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Your respective Departments should support this transition by providing guidance that would help schools reduce school suspensions, especially for students of color, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities and English learners. Therefore, we ask your Departments to address discriminatory and harsh punitive discipline practices that hinder students’ opportunity to become contributing members of society by issuing guidance that would:
Thank you for your attention to this matter; we look forward to working with you all in addressing this critical civil rights issue.