Rethinking School Discipline

Archived Information

Rethinking School Discipline

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Release of the Joint DOJ-ED School Discipline Guidance Package
The Academies at Frederick Douglass High School, Baltimore, MD

January 8, 2014

My thanks to CEO Edwards and President Dukes for their comments, and for that gracious introduction.

I thank you for your unwavering commitment to equal opportunity for all students and your leadership in rethinking school discipline in Maryland. And I’m so pleased to be joined here today by my good friend and colleague, Attorney General Holder.

The Attorney General and his team have been great partners in our work together to improve school climate and keep schools safe. I know this is a very personal issue for him--as it has been for me, and for the students we talked to just minutes ago at a roundtable here at Frederick Douglass.

We’re gathered here today to talk about school discipline---which, far too often, is not applied equitably or as effectively as it could be in our nation’s schools.

So today, the Departments of Education and Justice are joining together to release a guidance package on school discipline for a broad range of stakeholders--educators, principals, district administrators, school board members, charter school heads, school resource officers, counselors, social workers, parents, community leaders--and, importantly, students themselves.

Our school discipline package has several elements, but I’ll just highlight two important ones. The first is a Dear Colleague Letter from Catherine Lhamon and Jocelyn Samuels, who head the civil rights offices, respectively, at ED and DOJ.

Their joint letter provides information on how schools and districts can meet their legal obligations to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today, and not just an issue from 40 to 50 years ago. I want to thank Catherine and Jocelyn and their staffs for their tremendous leadership and commitment in addressing inequities in discipline that have been much discussed but rarely addressed. We must tackle these brutal truths head on—that is the only way to change the reality that our children face every day.

This is the first Administration to provide guidance to the public on discrimination in school discipline. And we want to continue to provide leadership on this critical problem going forward to ensure equal opportunity for all students.

The second part of the guidance package that I want to highlight is a Guiding Principles document that provides voluntary action steps for local leaders and educators. It lays out three core principles and related action steps to guide efforts to improve school climate and school discipline.

There is no single formula, no silver bullet for ensuring school discipline is equitable and effective. This work is too complex and too important to try to simplify it in that way.

Our Guiding Principles document highlights the need for locally-developed approaches to promote positive school climates and equitable discipline practices. Yet at the same time, we think those locally-tailored approaches should be grounded in research and promising practices--instead of being based on indiscriminate zero tolerance policies, or, at the other extreme, ad-hoc approaches to discipline.

The need to rethink and redesign school discipline practices is long overdue. Too many schools resort too quickly to exclusionary discipline, even for minor misbehaviors.

Exclusionary discipline is so common that in some cases, pre-K students as young as three- and four-years old are getting suspended. Here in Maryland, 91 pre-K students were suspended or expelled during the 2011-12 school year.

Schools should remove students from the classroom as a last resort, and only for appropriately serious infractions, like endangering the safety of other students, teachers, or themselves.

Unfortunately today, suspensions and expulsions are not primarily used as a last resort for serious infractions.

A landmark study in Texas found nearly six in ten public school students—a majority of students--were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grade.

Nationwide, as many as 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent misbehavior--like being disruptive, acting disrespectfully, tardiness, profanity, and dress code violations.

Let me be clear—these are all issues that must be dealt with clearly, effectively, and with a sense of urgency when they arise. But I would just ask, is putting children out of school the best remedy, the best solution to the problem? In California, nearly half of the more than 700,000 suspensions statewide in the 2011-12 school year were for, quote, “willful defiance.”

Over time, the overreliance on exclusionary discipline has gotten much worse. The number of secondary school students suspended or expelled over the course of a school year has increased by roughly 40 percent in the last four decades.

In recent years, secondary schools have suspended or expelled an estimated two million students a year. That is a staggering amount of lost learning time--and lost opportunity to provide support.

Making matters worse, exclusionary discipline is applied disproportionately to children of color and students with disabilities. Educationally, and morally, that status quo is simply unacceptable.

Our department’s Civil Rights Data Collection shows that African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be expelled or suspended.

And we know that discipline policy and practices matter tremendously—there is nothing inevitable about high rates of suspension and expulsion. We can, and must, do much better.

According to CRDC data, schools in South Carolina suspended 12.7 percent of students—about one in eight students during the 2009-10 school year. By contrast, schools in North Dakota suspended 2.2 percent of students—about one out of every 50 students.

I am absolutely confident that students in South Carolina are not six times more likely than their peers in North Dakota to pose serious discipline problems worthy of an out-of-school suspension. That huge disparity is not caused by differences in children; it’s caused by differences in training, professional development, and discipline policies. It is adult behavior that needs to change.

The same gaping disparities show up at the district level. Across the country, more than 300 districts suspend over 25 percent of students with disabilities. Yet more than 600 districts suspend less than 3 percent of students with disabilities.

So, state and local policies and practices are both enormously variable and have a huge impact on exclusionary discipline. Those are just two reasons why this guidance package--spelling out three guiding principles for equitable school discipline—is so important.

Those three guiding principles are simple and straightforward.

First, schools and districts should take deliberate steps to build positive school climates to prevent misbehavior and target student supports to children to help them address underlying causes of misbehavior--like trauma, substance abuse, and mental health issues.

So often acting-out behavior is a symptom of underlying issues children are dealing with at school, at home, or in the community. We must get beyond the surface issue and get to the heart of the problem.

Schools should be training staff, engaging families and community partners, and deploying real resources to help students develop the resolution skills they need to avoid or de-escalate problems. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Grit, resilience, conflict resolution skills—these are all skills that can be taught and learned, and are as important to long-term success as reading, writing, and math.

The second principle is that schools and districts should ensure that clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences are in place, both to prevent and to address misbehavior.

Students should face clear expectations about behaving appropriately and be held accountable for their actions.

And schools should be seeking to provide differing levels of support and interventions to students, based on their needs—we know some students need more intensive support than others. The one-size-fits-all mentality simply doesn’t work.

That will be the core premise of our School Climate Transformation Grants. The aim is to help more than a thousand schools train teachers and other school staff to implement evidence-based strategies with multi-tier behavioral frameworks to improve school climate and culture.

The third and final principle is that school leaders and educators should strive to ensure fairness and equity for all students through continuous improvement.

Using data and analysis, school leaders should continuously evaluate the impact of their discipline policies on all students and subgroups. If we are honestly tracking the data, it should not surprise us.

Too many times, schools, districts, and states fail to follow these guiding principles. And the overuse of suspensions and expulsions has taken a terrible toll on students, families, schools, and communities.

Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time--and are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.

The school-to-prison pipeline must be challenged every day. In Texas, a single suspension or expulsion for a discretionary offense that did not include a weapon almost tripled a student’s likelihood of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system the next school year.

Now, nothing in this guidance package should be understood to minimize the cardinal importance of holding students to high expectations that are developmentally appropriate. Students want and need clear boundaries, structure, and consistency. They need to feel safe, cared for, and respected. It is always the right thing to set high expectations for students, not just in academic terms, but for their behavior and conduct.

No school can be a great school if it is not first a safe school, and no teacher or student should ever feel unsafe or unable to concentrate on teaching and learning. Principals, teachers, families, and students all have a vested interest in minimizing disorder and disruptiveness in schools.

Positive school climates not only minimize unnecessary suspensions and expulsions, but also reduce disorder in the classroom and bolster learning. Those goals are complementary, not conflicting—they reinforce each other.

A new study of secondary schools in California identified 40 beating-the-odds schools that consistently performed better than would have been predicted, given the characteristics of the students they served. I don’t think it will surprise anyone here to learn that these 40 schools had much more positive school climates than their comparison schools.

In fact, researchers concluded that a school’s climate may have more to do with its success than the resources at its disposal. The study reported that “things like high expectations for students, caring relationships between teachers and students, and feeling safe at school were more associated with success.”

Now, creating positive school climates and equitable discipline practices is a school-by-school, community-by-community challenge. And this challenge is very real.

Schools continue to be among our safest institutions for children, and violence and crime has declined in schools during the last decade. But a substantial subset of middle- and high schools still has unacceptable levels of violence, and bullying is far too common.

It will take hard, collective action to dramatically reduce the overuse of exclusionary discipline and to consistently create positive school climates. But we know it can be done. There are amazing examples all across the country of leadership making a difference. And in fact, it’s being done right here in Baltimore, and right here at Frederick Douglass High School.

No one here is shrugging off this challenge, saying “boys will be boys” or “kids will be kids.”

A decade ago, in 2004, principals and educators routinely suspended students for minor infractions in Baltimore City Schools. In a school system with about 88,000 students, school officials handed out more than 26,000 suspensions.

A new CEO for the district, Andres Alonso, said that was unacceptable. He saw to it that the Code of Conduct governing student discipline was changed.

Mental health professionals were placed in every school with middle grades. More discipline problems were handled through mediation, counseling, and parent-teacher conferences.

As a result, the number of suspensions in Baltimore City Schools dropped by about two-thirds, from 26,300 suspensions to 8,600 last year. I’m proud to say that Jonathan Brice of our department played a central role in those reforms when he was here in Baltimore.

And CEO Edwards has very much continued Andres’ work in reducing exclusionary discipline. In just the last school year, the number of suspensions district-wide fell by almost 25 percent to a modern-day low. It may be harder to work with a child who is struggling than to just kick them out of school, but the extra effort is so important.

Many of you here today know that Frederick Douglass High has a storied past. But just a few years ago, the school had fallen on such hard times that an HBO documentary portrayed the school as a case study in educational dysfunction where less than 25 percent of students graduated.

Today, under the leadership of Dr. Hurt, and the school’s wonderfully committed teachers and support staff, achievement and graduation rates are up dramatically.

At the federal level, we have supported this turnaround with $4.2 million in school improvement grants that help students participating in an early college effort to travel to community college, and supports increased planning time for teachers and increased learning time for students.

The grants help provide supports to meet the social and emotional needs of students, in keeping with the action steps outlined in today’s guidance package.

Ultimately, the guiding principles and action steps we have outlined today are just a starting point for creating safe schools, where teachers can concentrate on teaching and where students are in class and learning.

These principles will be made real only through the vision and commitment of dedicated teachers, school leaders, and school staff, working in partnership with students, families, and communities.

Thurgood Marshall, a proud alum of Frederick Douglass High, said that “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody—a parent, a teacher . . . bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”

So, let us all reach out to help all our children pick up their boots and build positive futures for themselves.

And now I’d like to turn this over to my friend, Attorney General Holder.