US Dept of Education Opposes Zero Tolerance Linked to Suspensions

The Obama administration has issued guidelines that recommend public school officials use law enforcement only as a last resort for disciplining students, a response to a rise in zero-tolerance policies that have disproportionately increased the number of arrests, suspensions and expulsions of minority students for even minor, nonviolent offenses.

The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, and the attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., released a 35-page document that outlined approaches — including counseling for students, coaching for teachers and disciplinary officers, and sessions to teach social and emotional skills — that could reduce the time students spend out of school as punishment.

“The widespread use of suspensions and expulsions has tremendous costs,” Mr. Duncan wrote in a letter to school officials. “Students who are suspended or expelled from school may be unsupervised during daytime hours and cannot benefit from great teaching, positive peer interactions, and adult mentorship offered in class and in school.”

Data collected by the Education Department shows that minorities — particularly black males and students with disabilities face the harshest discipline in schools.

According to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, African-Americans without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled from school. And an analysis of the federal data by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that in 10 states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware and Illinois, more than a quarter of black students with disabilities were suspended in the 2009-10 school year.

In addition, students who are eligible for special education services make up nearly a quarter of those who have been arrested at school, despite representing only 12 percent of the nation’s students.

Some school districts, including Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Broward County, Fla. have begun to focus more on preventing problem behavior.

While I support the effort, changing school cultures from punishment to prevention will take time and will entail spending scare resources on training. Zero tolerance laws do not work because they take students who need the instruction and prevent them from attending class. Also, as long as student test scores drive the “improvement” process, getting rid of troubled students and not having them take high stakes tests are an incentive to schools to punish troublemakers.