Yesterday the Departments of Justice and Education released what they are referring to as a "school discipline guidance package" that the media is describing as an effort to clamp down on overzealous school "zero tolerance" punishment policies. While it's true this "package" discusses how zero tolerance policies are bad policy, a lot this guidance is all about making sure school discipline isn't being disproportionately applied based on race. From the Department of Education's "Dear Colleague" letter:
Although African-American students represent 15% of students in the CRDC, they make up 35% of students suspended once, 44% of those suspended more than once, and 36% of students expelled. Further, over 50% of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.
The Departments recognize that disparities in student discipline rates in a school or district may be caused by a range of factors. However, research suggests that the substantial racial disparities of the kind reflected in the CRDC data are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color. … Indeed, the Department's investigations …have revealed racial discrimination in the administration of student discipline. For example, in our investigations we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students.
So a significant amount of this documentation is about making sure school discipline decisions are not discriminatory. There are even flow charts for those educational professionals who need a more visual guide to understanding that giving a minority student harsher discipline than a white student for the same infraction is racist. You can read the letter here (pdf).
Part of the reason for the focus on race (besides the statistical evidence) is because it's an area where the federal government does have the authority to intervene in public school operations. These guides are essentially a diplomatic way of saying, "Do this, or face federal sanctions."
The Department of Education does also delve into the issue of overdiscipline as well, noting, "One study found that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect." Secretary of Education Arne Duncan goes on to note that students tossed out of 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." Well, he seems to be making a lot of assumptions about the kind of good teaching and mentorship a student may get from adults in a school that's quick to suspend kids for minor infractions.
The Department of Education's "guiding principles" for school discipline may be read here (pdf). Sorry to be negative, but perhaps put any hopes to rest that much will come from the Department's recommendations. This document could have been written by anybody with half a brain, other than the parts that are written entirely in educational bureaucratic jargon, possibly by a computer program ("Engage in deliberate efforts to create positive school climates" and "Promote social and emotional learning to complement academic skills and encourage positive behavior"). There probably is very little in this guide that school officials won't already claim that they're doing. It is good that they're discouraging schools from referring non-criminal disciplinary issues to law enforcement, something Los Angeles schools are now starting to turn away from. But ultimately, this looks like a bunch of guidelines that will lead to the formation of school committees (funded with federal grants, perhaps?) that put more rules into place that will be pointed to the next time an official does something stupid like suspend a kid for chewing his Pop Tart into the shape of a gun. Can anybody provide an example of American jurisprudence where the institution of additional rules resulted in less callously managed punishment? Why should we expect any different from schools?
What really needs to happen for significant change is that school districts need to be worried about the consequences to them for poorly managed school discipline. That's why the Department of Justice's emphasis on racial discrimination and the possibility of sanctions or lawsuits is so prominent – the DOJ has a stick to beat school districts with should they not comply. As for the "zero tolerance" nonsense, giving parents more choice and power on where their children attend school can serve as a useful pressure point to encourage school administrators to put an end to their petty tyrannies.