Taking the Temperature on School Climate and Discipline

In many schools across America, we begin each day with a morning ritual, the pledge of allegiance. Students stand sleepy-eyed with their hands over their hearts and recite the words that make our country great “with liberty and justice for all.” And though we proclaim it every day, the harder declaration is to live it.

In my classroom, students start off each school year discussing at length what it means to be a citizen of the United States. We debate, we question, and we make reference to our school creed: Be respectful, Be responsible, Be safe and an Active Learner.  Students quickly discover that we cannot begin to learn unless we know how to best support one another throughout the process.

Because self-awareness, self-control and resilience are as important as reading, writing and arithmetic, my students learn to be part of a community of learners, and that learning can only happen when they feel they are appreciated and valued.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice released guiding principles around School Climate and Discipline. While the guidance is comprehensive and multi-faceted, the focus is clear, schools must be both safe and supportive for effective teaching and learning to take place.

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to talk about the importance of school culture and fair discipline, and the need for both educators and students alike to feel safe as they pledge their allegiance each and every day.


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Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Getting to Know Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon

As her teacher taught a lesson on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the struggle to advance civil rights, Catherine E. Lhamon’s then-four-year-old daughter proudly informed her class, “My mom does that!”

Lhamon has dedicated her life’s work to equity and justice. Appointed by President Obama, she is doing that as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

Lhamon and Vice President Biden

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon walks with Vice President Joe Biden at the White House.

“My own parents were active in civil rights and I attended law school knowing I wanted to make a difference,” said Lhamon, who earned her law degree at Yale after graduating summa cum laude from Amherst College.

Before joining the administration, Lhamon was one of California’s top civil rights lawyers. She worked at the nation’s largest pro bono law firm as Director of Impact Litigation at Public Counsel. She practiced for a decade at the ACLU of Southern California as well as served as a teaching fellow and supervising attorney in the Appellate Litigation Program at Georgetown University Law Center after clerking for The Honorable William A. Norris on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

A mother of two young girls, Lhamon moved with her husband and children after her confirmation last summer to continue the work she loves in our nation’s capital. And while Lhamon – who was named one of California’s top 20 lawyers under 40 – brings impressive credentials to her new role, her fresh perspective is vital too.

“After 17 years in the field, I’ve mostly been the one asking government to do more. Now I’ve joined government,” she said.

Lhamon has spent nearly two decades reaching out to and fighting for the civil rights community—resulting in thick skin and extensive knowledge. While she highlights these qualities as assets, above all else, Lhamon credits the tremendous team around her for assisting in a seamless transition and continued accomplishments under her leadership.

The Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which Lhamon heads, is a team of almost 600 people, in 12 regional offices, that she describes as “diverse, well-educated, and passionate.” Lhamon speaks fluently about the office’s ability to handle a wide range of discrimination violations, including novel cases requiring new and creative solutions. Among other cases, she cites a resolution ensuring equitable access to Advanced Placement courses for students of color and a resolution with a virtual charter school ensuring students with disabilities equitable access to their school’s website as evidence of OCR’s success. The Department’s first-ever guidance on the excessive and disproportionate use of out of school discipline was widely hailed as a vital step for the field.

Some 10,000 complaints a year are sent to OCR and Lhamon calls her predecessor’s review of these cases “breathtaking.” In recent years, OCR released guidance to ensure that students with disabilities have equal opportunity in extracurricular athletics; clarify full requirements of Title IX in regards to sexual harassment and violence; and encourage the voluntary use of race in the interest of achieving diversity in schools.

Lhamon knows there remains no shortage of civil rights violations occurring across the country today.  She recognizes the difficulties and urgency of the moment and seeks to head an office that “uses our time well and in the process gets a lot more justice for a lot more kids.”

For the remainder of the Obama administration, she will be fighting on behalf of those kids. Lhamon’s younger daughter sees her mom as quite simply: President Obama’s lawyer. She is also every student’s lawyer—a challenging job Lhamon is eager to tackle.

Dan Griffin is a confidential assistant at the U.S. Department of Education

Ensuring Discipline that is Fair and Effective

Research shows that the use of suspensions has steadily climbed since the 1970s and that most suspensions today are for minor and non-violent incidents of misbehavior. These misbehaviors could be better addressed through measures that keep kids in school than by turning our kids away from the classroom door.  Further, federal data my office, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), collected for the 2011-12 school year indicates that students of color disproportionately bear the burden when schools use exclusion as punishment – they are disciplined more harshly and more frequently than other students, resulting in serious, negative educational consequences. For example, black students without disabilities represented 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled – but only 15 percent of students total in the OCR’s Civil Rights Data Collection. And over 50 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are black or Latino.

Holder and Duncan

Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder announced new school climate and discipline guidance today at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore.

Standing alone, disparate discipline rates like these do not necessarily indicate that a school or district is violating civil rights laws in every situation. Unfortunately, OCR investigations, which consider statistical data as part of a wide ranging examination of evidence, have revealed patterns of discrimination in certain cases.

Racial discrimination in school discipline is real, and it is a real problem. That’s why today, my office, OCR, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, released first-ever federal policy guidance aimed at addressing the problem of racial discriminatory discipline practices in elementary and secondary education. We sent our policy guidance, in the form of a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), to help schools and districts identify and remedy discriminatory discipline practices. The guidance explains federal non-discrimination requirements under Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the legal approach the Departments will take when investigating complaints or compliance reviews alleging race or national origin discrimination in a school or district’s discipline practices.

The DCL also provides concrete examples to help schools and districts understand the potential civil rights violations that may arise when disciplining students. Importantly, the DCL provides a number of recommendations that schools and districts can implement to ensure that discipline is fair and effective. These recommendations align with a set of guiding principles the U.S. Department of Education developed and also released today.

I encourage all educators, from the classroom to state education agencies, to take time to review the discipline guidance and other resources released as part of the Department’s overall discipline package. I know that educators across the country are working to provide students with safe school environments where students can receive an excellent education. Teachers and principals make difficult, yet appropriate, decisions involving the use of school discipline each and every school day. And yet, in some of our schools and districts, the unfair and unnecessary use of suspensions and expulsions undermine this essential work. Students must be in school to be successful.

When schools exclude their students as punishment, then students not only miss valuable learning time but also too often lose a sense of belonging and engagement at school. This lesson in civic disengagement becomes further compounded when we send our students the message that they are being singled out or treated differently because of their race, ethnicity, or national origin.Exclusionary discipline practices place students at risk for experiencing a number of correlated educational, economic, and social problems, including school avoidance, increased likelihood of dropping out, and involvement with the juvenile justice system.

President Obama has challenged us to once again lead the world in college graduation rates.We cannot possibly hope to meet this challenge of preparing all students for college and career if we continually sideline some students with suspensions and expulsions rather than employing methods proven to work to teach kids responsibility for their actions and their learning, commitment to their peers in the educational process, and the value of school engagement. Let’s work together to support schools, to remove barriers to educational opportunity, and to ensure students’ safe passage through the critical and formative stages of their educational experience.

Catherine Lhamon is assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights.  

Visit www.ed.gov/school-discipline for more information.

Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Secretary Duncan joined Attorney General Holder yesterday for the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention forum to share the results of a groundbreaking study on school discipline and to announce the launch of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative. The Initiative is a new step in improving school discipline procedures and ending the “school to prison pipeline” that affects far too many of the nation’s students.

School Crosswalk SignThe study by the Justice Center and the Public Policy Research Institute examines the disciplinary records of all Texas seventh-graders for a six-year period beginning in the year 2000. First, the study found that almost 6 out of 10 students, a disproportionate number of them African-Americans or students designated as suffering from an “emotional disturbance,” were suspended or expelled between 7th and 12th grade. These students were subsequently more likely to be held back a grade level or to develop criminal records. However, the study also showed that discipline varied significantly between schools, even if the schools had similar ethnic or economic demographics. All told, the report revealed the urgent need for more thoughtful leadership in determining school discipline policies.

“When our young people start getting locked up and getting criminal records, they start getting locked into poverty,” Secretary Duncan said. The Secretary attributed the disparity to a lack of information about effective ways of disciplining students.

Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Holder emphasized that juvenile delinquency could be corrected by providing schools with more information on how to improve troubled students’ behavior, without causing them to drop out of school and end up “falling through the cracks.”

Duncan and Holder then outlined the goals of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative. The goals are to:

  • Build the consensus for action among federal, state and local education and justice stakeholders;
  • Collaborate on research and data collection;
  • Promote positive disciplinary options to both keep kids in school and improve the climate for learning; and
  • Promote awareness and knowledge about evidence-based and promising policies and practices among state judicial and education leadership.

Duncan and Holder called for more leadership and collaboration in producing sound disciplinary policies in America’s classrooms.

“So many of these young people need a helping hand, need assistance, but also need clear boundaries and clear guidelines,” said Secretary Duncan. “What they don’t need is to be pushed out the door or to start a criminal record. We need to be a lot more thoughtful in how we address this.”