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A CHANGE IN CLIMATE: Obama Administration Issues New Recommendations on School Discipline in Effort to End School-to-Prison Pipeline

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

On January 8, the Obama administration released new recommendations on classroom discipline designed to end disparities in how students of different races are punished for violating school rules. The recommendations, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice, discourage disciplinary policies that push students out of school and into the justice system in favor of ones that foster safe, inclusive, and positive learning environments while keeping students in school. The recommendations are not binding but are meant to assist states, school districts, and schools in creating safe and positive school climates.

“Effective teaching and learning cannot take place unless students feel safe at school,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “Positive discipline policies can help create safer learning environments without relying heavily on suspensions and expulsions. Schools also must understand their civil rights obligations and avoid unfair disciplinary practices. We need to keep students in class where they can learn. These resources are a step in the right direction.”

The school discipline guidance package includes a “Dear Colleague” letter describing how schools can meet their legal obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating against students on the basis of race, color, or national origin, as well as a directory of federal technical assistance and other resources related to school discipline and climate available to schools and districts. At the heart of the package are three guiding principles drawn from emerging research and best practices to help states, districts, and schools improve school climate and school discipline:

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.

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.

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 and promote achievement for all students.

The school climate issue is of great importance to the Alliance for Excellent Education, which has issued three reports on the issue in the last six months. Findings from the reports are based on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which provides information about inequities in students’ access to rigorous course work, the distribution of experienced and licensed or certified teachers, and the application of school discipline policies.

Based on this data, the Alliance reports that schools struggling most with providing a positive school climate more often disproportionately serve students of color and low-income students. These students are also more likely to be suspended than their white and wealthier peers. In many cases, these suspensions do more harm than good as middle and high school students subjected to harsh school discipline policies and practices—such as suspensions and expulsions—are more likely to disengage from the classroom and course work, which increases their chances of dropping out.

“Current ‘zero-tolerance’ policies are doubly detrimental to students,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, in a statement on the Obama administration’s discipline recommendations. “They keep students out of school and away from the classroom, causing them to lose critical learning time and fall further behind, and they fail to address the underlying issues for their behavior.”

Instead of zero-tolerance policies, the Alliance recommends positive school discipline practices such as “restorative justice,” which focuses on repairing the harm a student’s actions have caused and preventing future incidents. Other successful practices include positive behavior reinforcement, culturally relevant pedagogy, and teacher training in classroom management and engaging instruction to see effective results from any of these strategies. Additionally, the Alliance finds that implementing rigorous and engaging curriculum aligned with college- and career-ready standards can foster positive school climates in which students are motivated to succeed, achievement gaps narrow, and learning and outcomes improve.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. “This guidance will promote fair and effective disciplinary practices that will make schools safe, supportive, and inclusive for all students. By ensuring federal civil rights protections, offering alternatives to exclusionary discipline and providing useful information to school resource officers, we can keep America’s young people safe and on the right path.”

More information on the Obama administration’s school discipline guidance package is available at

Additional information on the Alliance’s school climate work is available at

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