Asst Secretary Delisle and Youth Lend Their Voices to Combatting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Last week I met José, who visited the U.S. Department of Education for a roundtable discussion on school discipline policies. He described experiences at his Chicago high school that left him with the uneasy feeling that he had to keep his “guard up” while trying to learn. José came to Washington for a congressional hearing on discipline, where I testified, and we invited him and other students from the Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) project to come back to ED to talk more.

In our ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department, students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies.

Delisle at Senate Hearing

At a Senate hearing on Dec. 12, Assistant Secretary Deb Delisle testified about the importance of keeping students in school, and out of the judicial system and prison.

At last week’s session, the Chicago youth offered their ideas for improving school discipline practices and ending the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a widespread pattern of pushing students – particularly those who are disadvantaged – out of school and into the juvenile justice or prison systems.

While all educators strive to demonstrate positive, caring discipline practices in their classrooms, and a large number of schools and districts implement effective strategies for managing student behavior, far too many schools overly rely on discipline policies that remove students from the learning environment. Across the country, during the 2009-2010 academic year, upwards of three million students were suspended, nearly 110,000 were expelled, and more than 240,000 were referred to law enforcement.

I was heartened by the words of Tiara, a youth participant at the roundtable, when she described why she feels so strongly about stopping this trend. She said, “There is a racial issue here, too, when Black and Latino students are being punished more severely than their White peers and being incarcerated at higher rates.”

Recent data support Tiara’s observation. African-American students are more than three-and-a-half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than White students. Disparities in discipline rates are also apparent for students with disabilities, who are more than twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as their non-disabled peers. These disparities, which also exist between male and female students, raise concerns that some schools are not providing all youth with equal access to education, which potentially violates civil rights laws.

We also know that when students are removed from school as a disciplinary measure, the likelihood that they will drop out or become involved in the juvenile justice system dramatically increases. A 2011 longitudinal study of nearly one million students in Texas by the Council of State Governments revealed that about 15 percent were suspended or expelled 11 times or more and nearly half of those students also became involved in the juvenile justice system. During the roundtable, Brian, a graduate of Chicago’s Kelvyn Park High School, noted that teachers and principals can help to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline by learning how to implement discipline policies that respond to students’ needs and the root causes of their misbehavior.

I echoed Brian’s sentiment prior to my discussion with him and his peers during my testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on December 12. I appreciate that Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who represents the students from VOYCE, convened a hearing on school discipline, a topic that comes up often when Secretary Duncan and my colleagues at ED talk with students. I talked with the subcommittee about the importance of providing teachers and school leaders with appropriate alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. That work begins when we focus on helping educators to build the competencies and skills they need to maintain safe, engaging classrooms.

We also must increase capacity at the local level for developing positive school climates and supporting students through promising, evidence-based discipline practices. Currently, the Department is reviewing behavioral frameworks – including Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports – to determine if such approaches might help ED better focus its technical assistance to schools. Encouraging states and districts to review their discipline policies also is critical to ensuring that every school has in place an equitable code of conduct that does not more frequently or more harshly impact particular student groups.

Partnerships across the education, health, child welfare, and justice sectors are vital to keep all students safe, in school, and learning. To find out more about the Department’s work in this area and how the agency is collaborating with other organizations and federal stakeholders, read my full Senate testimony here.

Deb Delisle is the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. I am very appreciative of the administration’s efforts to break the pipeline. We can see that race, class, and disability are intersecting powerfully. Most obviously, children of color are excluded on two bases: suspensions that kick them out of school, and over-diagnosis as having emotional disabilities, which places them in segregated classrooms.

    My doctoral research indicates that even the most inclusive leaders are grappling with these issues. When they use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and keep the focus primarily on the student, my research finds that the schools are shifting from seeing kids as “bad” to seeing them as “sick.” The problem is that they schools are really never looking at themselves, at practices and systems of institutional racism that impact students.

    I have been sharing some of these findings at the following blog, where I invite questions and comments:

    Thank you for your consideration.

  2. U.S. Schools must Honor Sandy Hook victims by Abolishing Corporal Punishment, Stop Hitting Schoolchildren! Sad how NONE of the Media coverage includes the Fact that at the Groundbreaking Senate Hearing to End School-to-Prison Pipeline held 12/12/12 ACLU recommended enacting Federal Bill H.R. 3027 “The Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act”, already Illegal in Schools in 31 U.S. States and Prohibited by Federal Law for use against convicted Felons in ALL U.S. Prisons, Cost $0! 19 U.S. States including Georgia legally allow schoolchildren Kindergarten through Twelfth grade to be beaten with thick wooden paddles to inflict Pain as Punishment for minor infractions with No Safety standards to protect children from excessive force injuries or to prevent sadistic pedophiles from filming and sharing their perverse pleasure! See brutally violent injuries to schoolchildren from U.S. Public School “Paddling/Corporal Punishment” at YouTube Video trailer for Documentary Movie “The Board of Education” by Jared Abrams . Search “A Violent Education” 2008 Study by Human Rights Watch and ACLU for disturbing facts! dont hit students dot com Corporal Punishment is not good for children it leaves many injured, degraded and disengaged from school, it must raise blood pressure of school employees, it puts taxpayer funds at risk of lawsuits like the Half a Million Dollar lawsuit recently filed against Cumberland County, TN schools because a coac paddled a student who was on “No Paddle” list due to previous head injury and could have died from further injury to his spine. Why doesn’t ayone want to acknowledge the ugly Truth that adults entrusted with our children’s safety in school must terrify our children with even the threat of vioence? How on earth do schools in 31 U.S. states that have outlawed Corporal Punishment of children operate everyday?

    • In addition to outlawing corporal punishment in schools, schools should be required to report injuries that may have been caused by school personnel to the prosecuting attorneys’ office which would then be required to investigate. I suspect some prosecutors won’t prosecute a union member for fear of not winning reelection. Or perhaps injuries in schools by adults could be elevated to federal crimes to get them out of the purview of local prosecutors.

  3. This is a case where the data is telling a story, but the data is being misinterpreted. School is a place for learning, and one of the things students have to learn is how to fit in with the rest of society. I suggest that when a student has been expelled 11 times they are not learning how to fit in and do not belong in a regular classroom. Schools are acting like the canary in the coal mine for students that are predisposed to anti social and criminal behaviors.

    The goal of reducing suspensions and eliminating the ability to allow teachers to remove a disruptive student harms education. Civil rights laws are being violated through this goal, the civil rights of the students who are deprived of the ability to learn because of disruptive students. The solution is not to eliminate these tools that allow teachers to maintain discipline and order in the classroom, the solution is to create an effective alternative environment for those students who are not able to cope with a structured environment.

    Let me make this clear: the goal of improving student achievement in our schools is undermined by the administrative policy that is represented by the goal of fewer suspensions. There is on the one hand a push to increase teacher accountability by linking their performance to student growth while the other hand is taking away tools that would allow teachers to create a more effective learning environment.

    Suspending students does not create dropouts and future prison inmates, it identifies them. Use this observation as a tool for intervention. If you truly care about breaking the “school-to-prison pipeline”, create a system that deals with these troubled kids outside of a regular classroom.

  4. My earlier comment seems to have disappeared. I fully understand that disabled students need to be reasonably accommodated and that teachers need training in how to create an atmosphere where disabled students can thrive along with an administration that properly staffs classrooms, etc.

    I do not want to see one group punished more than another for the same types of problems. At the same time, there are some equity issues involving the kids that are not misbehaving and who are involved in and paying attention in the classroom. These students deserve an environment where they can concentrate. Some schools have gotten a lot louder and I’m hearing from multiple sources that there are issues involving girl on girl fights. This lack of an environment which promotes learning in the classroom needs frank discussion without fear of being labeled racist, and a learning environment needs to be put back into the classroom. There are a lot of soft disciplinary issues like being mouthy in the classroom that disrupt the learning environment for everyone else. How exactly do you intend to solve this?

    I am concerned that some bad behaviors are being overlooked in my district because the district doesn’t want to look like its targeting any groups. This has dire implications for the classroom.

    The hope is that sometime these students will be employed and schools need to prepare them for this. In the workforce, employees are fired for misbehaving.

    Reports of bad behavior seem to be escalating with the growth in school size. Perhaps its time to strive for more medium size schools where students might feel better connected to and more vested in their environment.

  5. I would interested in knowing how many those same students are students with reading difficulties or are learning disabled. Is it because they are not being successful in school that they end up in trouble and in the pipeline to the juvenile system. Research indicates that many of our prisoners are illiterate or have minimal literacy skills. So the solution may not be about school climate and discipline measures, but about students being successful in school and providing the interventions, instructional techniques, curricular programs, to meet their specific and individual needs.

    • Super comment by Thomas. There are often a lot of reading resources directed at young kids but not enough at older kids. For some kids, reading doesn’t take off until fourth grade or so. Kids need to be checked for reading difficulties when they are older and when they first enter a school (since many are transitory). Then appropriate help needs to be provided. I don’t believe it is currently. In one of my children’s schools, students are enabled not to read because they have a lot of free reading time (which they don’t use) and they are read to by teachers (in person and electronically). Plus there is a lot of group work where one student can carry the group so the struggling students may appear better than they are. The one size fits all approach to language arts and reading isn’t working. The good performers are held back and the strugglers don’t get adequate help.

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