CI: Feds Finally Take Action to End School to Prison Pipeline

January 15, 2014 at 7:06 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Education, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, What People are Doing to Change the World

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Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Feds Finally Take Action to End School to Prison Pipeline
by nancy a heitzeg

Last week, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division responded to more than a decade of data-driven critique of zero tolerance policies, the criminalization of education, and the creation of a school to prison pipeline. The Departments jointly issued extensive new guidelines urging schools to abandon zero tolerance policies, reduce a “policing” approach, and rely instead on restorative justice .

Persistent and consistent disparities in rate of suspensions and expulsions are the heart of the official critique. As the New York Times notes in “The Civil Rights of Children“:

“The guidance documents included striking data on racial inequities. For example, African-American students represent only 15 percent of public school students, but they make of 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and 36 percent of those expelled. Statistical information does not in itself prove discrimination. But research has shown that black students do not engage in more serious or more frequent misbehavior than other students.

The treatment of disabled students should be a source of national shame: They represent 12 percent of students in the country, but they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.”

This is consistent with a growing national concern over the school to prison pipeline.  The U.S. Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice committed in 2012 to addressing disparities in the school suspensions and expulsions as a civil rights matter, including filing suit against the State of Mississippi for operating a school to prison pipeline in Meridian. In December of 2012 the first ever Congressional hearings on the school to prison pipeline were held and featured expert testimony that detailed both the scope of the problem and solutions including calls for decreased funding incentives for police, increased funding for counseling, support staff  and educational resources, mandatory nation-wide data collection on suspension, expulsion and arrests at school, and support for evidenced-based solutions to end the persistent racial disparities that shape the contours of the pipeline.

The guidelines leave some questions – especially around the police presence at schools-but they are a much welcome step forward that reminds us too of the importance of federal framing and leadership. The complete set of resources is included below.

Principle 1: Climate and Prevention: Schools that foster positive school climates can help to engage all students in learning by preventing problem behaviors and intervening effectively to support struggling and at-risk students.
(1) Engage in deliberate efforts to create positive school climates.
(2) Prioritize the use of evidence-based prevention strategies, such as tiered supports, to promote positive student behavior.
(3) Promote social and emotional learning to complement academic skills and encourage positive behavior.
(4) Provide regular training and supports to all school personnel – including teachers, principals, support staff, and school-based law enforcement officers – on how to engage students and support positive behavior.
(5) Collaborate with local mental health, child welfare, law enforcement, and juvenile justice agencies and other stakeholders to align resources, prevention strategies, and intervention services.
(6) Ensure that any school-based law enforcement officers’ roles focus on improving school safety and reducing inappropriate referrals to law enforcement.
Principle 2: Expectations and Consequences: Schools that have discipline policies or codes of conduct with clear, appropriate, and consistently applied expectations and consequences will help students improve behavior, increase engagement, and boost achievement.
(1) Set high expectations for behavior and adopt an instructional approach to school discipline.
(2) Involve families, students, and school personnel in the development and implementation of discipline policies or codes of conduct, and communicate those policies regularly and clearly.
(3) Ensure that clear, developmentally appropriate, and proportional consequences apply for misbehavior.
(4) Create policies that include appropriate procedures for students with disabilities and due process for all students.
(5) Remove students from the classroom only as a last resort, ensure that any alternative settings provide students with academic instruction, and return students to their regular class as soon as possible
Principle 3: Equity and Continuous Improvement: Schools that build staff capacity and continuously evaluate the school’s discipline policies and practices are more likely to ensure fairness and equity.
(1) Train all school staff to apply school discipline policies and practices in a fair and equitable manner so as not to disproportionately impact students of color, students with disabilities, or at-risk students.(2) Use proactive, data-driven, and continuous efforts, including gathering feedback from families, students, teachers, and school personnel to prevent, identify, reduce, and eliminate discriminatory discipline and unintended consequences

School Climate and Discipline Guidance Package,

U.S. Department of Education

  • Dear Colleague letter
    Guidance letter prepared with our partners at the U.S. Department of Justice describing how schools can meet their obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
    English [PDF, 587] | En español [PDF, 644K]
  • Guiding Principles [PDF, 1MB] Prólogo de Secretario Arne Duncan En español [PDF, 314K]
    Guidance document which draws from emerging research and best practices to describe three key principles and related action steps that that can help guide state- and locally controlled efforts to improve school climate and school discipline.
  • Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources [PDF, 1MB]
    Index of the extensive Federal technical assistance and other resources on school discipline and climate available to schools and districts.
  • Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations
    Document describing an online tool that catalogues the laws and regulations related to school discipline in each of the 50 States, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico states and compares laws across states and jurisdictions. You can access the description of the Compendium here [PDF, 674K], and you can access the tool itself online.
  • Overview of nthe Supportive School Discipline Initiative [PDF, 266K]
    Outline of recent federal efforts on these issues through the interagency Supportive School Discipline Initiative.

Additional Resources

  • Rethinking School Discipline
    Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Release of the Joint ED-DOJ School Discipline Guidance Package Release, January 8, 2014. The remarks of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at the release event are available here.
  • Frequently Asked Questions [FAQs]
    Frequently Asked Questions document describes the contents of the guidance package, how to get more information and technical assistance about the content of the package, and what the guidance package means for policymakers, district and school leaders, teachers, students, families, and community members. English [PDF, 383K] | En español [PDF, 339K]
  • Post-card/mini-factsheet
    Mini-factsheet provides a brief overview of the contents of the guidance package and how they can be used. English [PDF, 395K] | En español [PDF, 325K]
  • Press release
    English | En español
  • Blog post
    Ensuring Discipline that is Fair and Effective


Wow: "The treatment of disabled students should be a source of national shame: They represent 12 percent of students in the country, but they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest."

I'm speechless.


Thanks, Nancy, and thanks to the groups you list below.

Expect another form of "states rights/local rights."  Here in MT, the county attorney is making a crusade out of opposing DOJ on handling of rape/sexual assault issues, and he's getting a lot of support from around the country (although local police and university officials are cooperating with DOJ).  The school to prison pipeline is the white supremacist revenge for school desegregation.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg moderator

@ScottieThomastonyes and it of course intersects with race -- balk students w/ disabilities are suspended/expelled at the rates of all


@ScottieThomastonIntersections, Scottie, for sure.  Especially when you look at intersection of race/disability - not only in school punishments, but also in prisons, and especially in use of extended solitary confinement.


@KayWhitlockHadn't really thought of it that way, but yes, the rollbacks of voting rights etc, do indeed seem to support your premise.


@badphairy@KayWhitlock Also, we need to be aware of just how massive resistance to school desegregation was.  Here's a great book about Prince Edward County, VA in the wake of Brown v. Board - there was an African American student strike over unequal educational conditions and resources, and when Brown came down, the school district literally shut down for 5 years.  And I know you know who was hurt the worst - private academies for white kids sprang up like wildflowers.

And then there was Sunflower County, MS, where the segregation/desegregation/school to prison pipeline transition was seamless.  The same school board members who presided over a segregated school system presided over a "desegregated" one.  Great film:  The Intolerable Burden, so worth seeing.


  1. […] Feds Finally Take Action to End School to Prison Pipeline […]

  2. […] interrupt the school to prison pipeline. In particular, emphasis was placed on the role of the new Federal Guidelines on School Climate and Discipline and the opportunity offered now to move away from decades of zero tolerance. The piece below, […]