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Steps Forward on School Discipline

Marian Wright Edelman | 1/21/2014, 11:12 a.m.
In many American schools the holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is used as an opportunity to teach ...
Marian Wright Edelman

"The United States is far from providing each child with as much education as he can use. Our school system still primarily functions as a system of exclusion....[T]here is an enormous reservoir of talent among Negro and other poor youth. This society has to develop that talent. The unrealized capacities of many of our youth are an indictment of our society's lack of concern for justice and its proclivity for wasting human resources. As with so much else in this potentially great society, injustice and waste go together and endanger stability."

--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

In many American schools the holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is used as an opportunity to teach children about his life and legacy. But in too many of those same schools, Black and other nonwhite and poor children’s extraordinary talents are still being wasted today. Nearly three-quarters of Black and Latino fourth and eighth grade public school students cannot read or compute at grade level. Long after legal segregation has ended Black students are still most likely to be excluded from the classroom: Black students made up only 18 percent of students in public schools in 2009-2010 but were 40 percent of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions. A Black public school student is suspended every four seconds. When Black students are so often left behind and pushed out it should not surprise us that Black students are more than twice as likely to drop out of school as White students; each school day 763 Black high school students drop out.

So I applaud the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice for their recent action to address harmful school discipline policies that push so many thousands of the most vulnerable children out of school each year and into the juvenile justice and adult prison pipeline. If the education system is to do its part in dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ and in replacing it with a cradle to college, career and success pipeline, we must end the current practice where children in the greatest need are suspended and expelled from school mostly for nonviolent offenses including tardiness and truancy. I have never understood why you put a child out of school for not coming to school rather than determining why they are absent.

I hope the new set of resources released by the Departments of Education and Justice will help schools create positive, safe environments while relying less on exclusionary discipline tactics. These resources, officially known as “guidance,” will help schools and districts meet their legal responsibility to protect students from discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin as required under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the guidance offered is voluntary, school districts that fail to use effective strategies to address disparities in how discipline is applied could be subject to legal action from the Department of Education or Department of Justice. As we recognize the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and so many other important hard won victories in the Civil Rights Movement this year, we must remember those victories could be lost without meaningful enforcement of the laws advocates fought so hard to win half a century ago.