Ensuring Discipline that is Fair and Effective

Research shows that the use of suspensions has steadily climbed since the 1970s and that most suspensions today are for minor and non-violent incidents of misbehavior. These misbehaviors could be better addressed through measures that keep kids in school than by turning our kids away from the classroom door.  Further, federal data my office, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), collected for the 2011-12 school year indicates that students of color disproportionately bear the burden when schools use exclusion as punishment – they are disciplined more harshly and more frequently than other students, resulting in serious, negative educational consequences. For example, black students without disabilities represented 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled – but only 15 percent of students total in the OCR’s Civil Rights Data Collection. And over 50 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are black or Latino.

Holder and Duncan

Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder announced new school climate and discipline guidance today at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore.

Standing alone, disparate discipline rates like these do not necessarily indicate that a school or district is violating civil rights laws in every situation. Unfortunately, OCR investigations, which consider statistical data as part of a wide ranging examination of evidence, have revealed patterns of discrimination in certain cases.

Racial discrimination in school discipline is real, and it is a real problem. That’s why today, my office, OCR, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, released first-ever federal policy guidance aimed at addressing the problem of racial discriminatory discipline practices in elementary and secondary education. We sent our policy guidance, in the form of a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), to help schools and districts identify and remedy discriminatory discipline practices. The guidance explains federal non-discrimination requirements under Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the legal approach the Departments will take when investigating complaints or compliance reviews alleging race or national origin discrimination in a school or district’s discipline practices.

The DCL also provides concrete examples to help schools and districts understand the potential civil rights violations that may arise when disciplining students. Importantly, the DCL provides a number of recommendations that schools and districts can implement to ensure that discipline is fair and effective. These recommendations align with a set of guiding principles the U.S. Department of Education developed and also released today.

I encourage all educators, from the classroom to state education agencies, to take time to review the discipline guidance and other resources released as part of the Department’s overall discipline package. I know that educators across the country are working to provide students with safe school environments where students can receive an excellent education. Teachers and principals make difficult, yet appropriate, decisions involving the use of school discipline each and every school day. And yet, in some of our schools and districts, the unfair and unnecessary use of suspensions and expulsions undermine this essential work. Students must be in school to be successful.

When schools exclude their students as punishment, then students not only miss valuable learning time but also too often lose a sense of belonging and engagement at school. This lesson in civic disengagement becomes further compounded when we send our students the message that they are being singled out or treated differently because of their race, ethnicity, or national origin.Exclusionary discipline practices place students at risk for experiencing a number of correlated educational, economic, and social problems, including school avoidance, increased likelihood of dropping out, and involvement with the juvenile justice system.

President Obama has challenged us to once again lead the world in college graduation rates.We cannot possibly hope to meet this challenge of preparing all students for college and career if we continually sideline some students with suspensions and expulsions rather than employing methods proven to work to teach kids responsibility for their actions and their learning, commitment to their peers in the educational process, and the value of school engagement. Let’s work together to support schools, to remove barriers to educational opportunity, and to ensure students’ safe passage through the critical and formative stages of their educational experience.

Catherine Lhamon is assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights.  

Visit www.ed.gov/school-discipline for more information.


  1. When looking at some data, is the position of this article saying, as an example, that the punishment for certain behavior and actions differ when it comes to race? So out of fifty students who do xyz, and 25 being white and 25 being black, the black kids get much harsher punishment? Is there data to show this? Discipline and structure are the main reasons families choose private schooling so it would be interesting to review. And ironic really. I believe to be a legitimate question and responsible social conduct should be part of curriculum.

    • Yes, the research data supports this. The reasons behind it though are quite complex, and merit further study. I agree responsible social conduct should be part of the curriculum, but it is not, thanks to standardized testing. Students, schools, and teachers are not measured on this variable-only core academic content matters, at the expense of all else. I contend that if what we want to produce are scholars, responsible citizens, innovators, loyal and committed employees, caring parents, and dedicated community members, then our current assessments are invalid. The so-called school “reformers” have failed us in this department. Let’s hold them accountable, take the keys back from the privatizers, and return our schools back to the parents and communities they serve.

  2. After all is time, school discipline is a very complicated issue and we are not efficient at it. Perhaps, its because of some embedded issues society is avoiding and that is why we have bullies in school, abusive suspensions rates, and academic deficit. The big elephant in the room, race, poverty, classism plays a huge part in how some teachers, administrators, and school board members view students, and whether they are deserving of an education without disruption, push-out, or absent of equality. We are not efficient in selecting our school board members because may be we prefer them to be of a certain mindset so some can feel safe regarding what decision he/she will make in which one group or several groups will be in favor, and others are left out. The community fails to manage the school board, so they take on a life of their own in which practicing in an inequitable matter that only serves few of the students, and the others are left out. Administration is hired by school board to perform a job and suppose to be able to fire that individual if performances are inadequate; however, not if the board lost that power to manage lead administrator. In Hillsborough County Public Schools we have fragmented and ineffective school district and largely because of the school board ineffectiveness to manage their one employee “the superintendent.” Needless to say, African Americans lead in all educational disparities and it is getting worse. Meanwhile, the message to the world from this school district is that we are leaders in education, instead, it is very difficult to find evidence that students are their priority. This can be observed through the out-of -school suspensions, bullying, zero tolerance policy, and African Americans reading proficiency is 12 to 14% for many years. The superintendent and school board fights publicly, not about students academic preparedness but on whether the superintendent will allow the school board to evaluate her. We are in severe need of a change of top leadership in order to focus on all students academic and rid of bullying from the school board and administration. Help!

  3. I wanted to thank you for this good read!! I absolutely loved every bit of it. I have you book-marked to look at new things you post

  4. I would like to applaud the US Department of Education; Department of Justice and the Department of Civil Rights for protecting our children. My daughter who is a well behaved child, an honorable student throughout k-6th grade, civil rights have been violated. 2nd day of school she got two detentions for not Capitalizing her name on her paper and forgetting to put the year on her paper. Since then she has gotten detentions for not echoing a question; for not matching the subject with the predicate;
    starting a sentence with a lower case letter and having incomplete heading on a page.
    These detentions can add up to a suspension. The students can’t talk in class; can’t talk in the hallways and cannot talk during lunch or they will have detention. My daughter is in the 8th grade. I can take my daughter out like other Parents have.
    I don’t have money to send my daughter to a private school. I decided to stay and
    fight for all of the children. This school receives our tax dollars. All of our children
    have a right to receive an education without fear, intimidation or threats.

  5. In theory, I agree with much of this piece; however, the Office of Civil Rights ought to be doing more to help schools with effective alternative disciplinary policies. For example, insubordination and general mouthiness on the part of students (no matter what color or race or gender) in the classroom is highly distracting for many students and detracts from the learning environment. How does the Office of Civil Rights intend to make the classroom culture better so that all students can learn? Getting a handle on this might also improve the teacher retention rate.

  6. Another issue that schools have never adequately addressed is bullying. From my observations the bullies are predominantly Caucasian and those bullied are students who are black, Latino, poor, or do not dress or appear like their peers, and not part of a clique or LBGT. If the bullied students fight back, they are suspended or in some cases, expelled. If the bullied students do not fight back, they keep being bullied. The teachers, vice principal and other school personnel know who these bullies are, but do nothing. This was true sixty years ago when I was in school, and it is still true today. This is not a good environment for learning, not for the bullied students and not even for the bullies, who learn that such tactics are acceptable and are tolerated.

  7. As a retired teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I have experiened Great & Poor Schools.
    I know that teachers need the support of parents, in English & Bilingual clases.!

  8. For those who live in the “United States of Denial”, no statistics will be enough for them to recognize and admit that there is disparate treatment in schools based on race when it comes to handing out discipline.
    I will not attempt to spend the time and space rebutting some of the remarks made by previous posts. I believe that this discussion must go forward without placing shame or blame to help shed light on a very real issue and possibly help bring about some solutions that can save the children that we purport to serve.
    I will say that some of those preconceptions on the part of teachers and administrators account for the way discipline is meted out. Unfortunately, this mentality results in teachers that instead of being mentors to the youth – become their tormentors. I always feel the need to say that this only applies only to some of the teachers because there are some really dedicated ones out there. They are caring and committed although overworked and underpaid.
    ,I gave a big fat “well duh” when this report came out. Having been employed in the public school system for over 7 years and a product of it, I could have written the book on the subject based on what I have witnessed. I know that anecdotal is not considered scientific. However, a couple of examples highlight my point. One suburban school system with a small minority population used to have a Saturday suspension/enrichment program. On those days the only participants being dropped off were African American males (although we knew they could not be the only ones with disciplinary issues). The disparity comes from the way they are viewed by society which caused their actions to be over responded to and over reported. While the non minority students had the benefit of the halo effect which caused their actions although exact or sometimes even more egregious to go unnoticed and unpunished. The racial profiling of these students begins in Kindergarten.
    I found myself coming home from school most days with my head full of the craziness that I saw and heard in the schools. It got to the point where I decided to write some of it down on the outside chance that I might somehow forget it with the passage of time. I also knew that there would come a time when someone would “get a clue” as to what was happening and my documentation might be of some use.

    With what I saw happening to the minority males in America’s schools, I came to the conclusion that if I had a child (a minority male) at war in Afghanistan and a child in a public school, I’d get my child out of the public school first. At least my military child would have had the benefit of going through basic training and have had a chance to learn survival skills that might help protect him from the enemy. The child in the public school would be defenseless in a war zone just as dangerous, devastating, and detrimental to his life chances.
    Let the defensiveness and blame end and let the open minded and openhearted solution oriented work begin. We as educators should all want and work for nothing less than a fair and just society for our greatest treasure.

    • That’s a pretty interesting comment about preferring your son to be in the military rather than in public schools. A while back, in one of the national affairs magazines (Harper’s, Atlantic, New Republic), was an article that pointed out how the US military had to take in recruits and train them well. Teaching people how to function effectively in the military was a vital task *because other peoples’ lives depended on it*. In light of that, race, ethnicity, etc., were regarded as superfluous BS, distractions from the deadly serious purpose of education.

      One thing is for sure – there’s order in the classrooms for military instruction. Do they even give a rip about disparate impact there?

      I dislike militarism, but maybe we can get some pointers on effective instruction from our military. After all, we’re shelling out over $600 billion per year for it…let’s get all we can out of it.

  9. I have attempted to contact the department for these similar issues happening with my son in the Pasco County School district but have yet to receive a response. The many suspensions for every child like is affecting his academic performance. These suspensions were not warranted. I beg this institution to investigate the Pasco County school district in Land O Lakes, Fl to help the minority kids in this area. The disparate treatment is severe and it includes a violation of their privacy and their civil rights.

    • I’m also having a hard time fighting for unreasonable principle suspension for my 8years old boy who made minor misbehavior with Toy gun in Etiwanda school district in California since DEC2013.

      Sent a claim letter to state education dept & school district but they asking me to wait for response.

      As a parent of a little kid it is really hard to be patient about the school labeled my kid as a dangerous student.
      Toy Gun that was from ice cream truck at $5 they consider it as a real weapon.

      Whatever kid can buy by the law shouldn’t be considered for school suspension.

  10. The entire debate regarding “fair” discipline policies is absurd. If a school determines that “x” is a rule, it is up to that school to enforce “x.” It should not matter what gender, race, grade, or religion a violator of “x” is. If violators of rules are removed from schools, other students in school would benefit. For starters, they would know that there are consequences for violating rules, and more importantly, they would be able to learn without a classroom teacher’s need to stop a lesson every five minutes to handle discipline problems. In my school, the Administration does not deal with unruly students. Instead, the principal has encouraged teachers to send unruly students to other teachers’ classrooms. Now there is a solution!! Really? In this day and age when random acts of violence are perpetrated on school campuses around this Nation by students, unruly students are being sent to other teachers’ classrooms? They are already in less than positive moods, already have “chips” on their shoulders, already have disrupted the learning environment in one classroom, so let’s go ahead and interfere with another learning environment. Great idea!!! Excuse my sarcasm, but I am tired of listening to arguments that claim that too many black and latino students are being suspended, at best, or at being singled out for behavior reasons. If their behaviors were socially acceptable behaviors, if they would respect authority, if they would respect themselves, then they would not be in the situation of being suspended or isolated from classrooms.

    • Kay,

      This is a matter of disparate treatment. In order words, not all violators are suffering the same consequences. E.G. My son attends school in Pasco county, Fl. A caucasian kid jumped on his back and pushed him to the ground, inflicted pain and dirtied him all up. When I picked him up from school, he told me about it, that he was in pain and his back was hurting as a result of the jump. I asked him what did the teacher do and he said nothing. The following week, he was cleaning up, he was picking up a ball when an African American kid jump on him to take the same ball. In a reflective action, scratched the kid. The principal suspended my them and indicated that my son instigated a fight and was rough housing. But the kids were not fighting. In another situation, they suspended my son because he told a kid to stop making farting noises because he could not hear the teacher because of the noises. They did not do anything to the kid that was making the farting noises but suspended my son for talking. In addition kids were bullying him calling him inappropriate names and they did nothing to the kids because he was unhappy about it it lead to him saying no that he did not want to go to the office when asked. The Principal said he was surprised that he said no to him and it was the first time however, he suspended him. When I asked them so why did you not suspend the kid for calling my son inappropriate names, the Principal told me that it was the first time that the kid did it. So my son said no to him for the first time, he suspended my son but the kid who was bullying my son did it for the first time and was not suspended. Why? Why did they not suspend the kid who was bullying my son calling him an inappropriate name? Why did they not suspend the caucasian kid who jumped on his back and threw him to the ground? Why wasn’t it called rough housing or the caucasian kid instigating a fight? When kids reported on my son, true or not, in the absence of an adult, my son would get in trouble but when my son reported things that were done to him or other kids that were not appropriate, they would call him a tattle tale. Why wasn’t the reflective action considered an accident instead of instigating a fight? So if the actions of the black kids are considered fight why not the actions of the white kids? These disciplines are what I consider disparate treatment. The same actions need to be punished with the same consequence. Don’t punish one for an action and not punish another for the same action.

        • Vera –
          Thank you for taking the time to reply to my post. First, I am sorry to read that your son was injured. Any time any person is injured, a thorough investigation needs to occur, an investigation that is fair and unbiased. The problem, as you first-handedly have experienced, to find fair and unbiased individuals is a monumental task these days. There are always “excuses” why something was done one way and not the other. In my school, we are told nothing and are not permitted to ask the AP that doles out the consequences. I can’t agree with you more. Disparate treatment of students and teacher, I might add, is the single-most demoralizing issue in schools today. What destroys a school’s cohesiveness, a student-body’s spirit, a staff’s morale is the incessant favoritism that school administrators show and are permitted to get away with. With all the random acts of violence in our schools today, when will those with the decision-making “power” wake up and realize that their choices are exactly what you call them; namely, “torments” to the students and to teachers. But, keep in mind that my principal does not micromanage. He just makes all the decisions that impact students and staff. But he doesn’t micromanage!!
          I hope 2014 brings to you and to your family the resolve to stand up for what is right!!
          Best wishes.

    • Ken,
      You are oversimplifying school discipline policies. You are ignoring the effect of disparate impact. From the DCL: “The administration of student discipline can result in unlawful discrimination based on race in two ways: first, if a student is subjected to different treatment based on the student’s race, and second, if a policy is neutral on its face–meaning that the policy itself does not mention race–and is administered in an even handed manner but has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.”

    • The problem with the school rules are that they are not being distributed fairly. In addition, schools are trigger happen or lazy and suspend kids for minor infractions. My 9 year old was suspended for 3 days for getting out of his seat without permission and talking. Something that the girls in his class did constantly and were never disciplined in any manner (I know I sat in my sons class on a number of occasions). Moreover, neither the school or the teacher had a clear policy for class rules or school rules. The so-called discipline policy was an implementation behaviors scores based on what they subjectively believed an acceptable behavior should be, with no clear rules otherwise. Which also was unfair and emotionally damaging to kids.

      And truthfully, we as parents leave our kids in the care of these teachers the majority of the day. We need to know that they are not being mistreated in any manner. If a child has a behavior or discipline problem let me deal with that as a parent. However, the larger problem is that what some of these schools, teachers and administrators define as “bad behavior” is not necessarily bad. I have had my son in public, charter and private school, he has never had a fight, cursed at a teacher, thrown any thing, are been so disruptive to deserve to get put out of class, suspended or expelled. Conversely, I had a school principle hit my son (he was only 5), curse at him, tell him he was going to kill him and a plethora of other egregious behavior. nothing happened to him, not even a day of missed work. I have also had a teacher snatch things, even a scissor from my child, and nothing happened to her (although eventually the school let her go but this was a year after I removed my child). In addition, the the incidents with my child I have seen other teachers, yell at, curse at, hit and spit on peoples children and yet nothing happens to them. Yet, a 5 yr old, 6 yr old, 7 yr old etc can be put out of the class for getting up out of their seat or talking out of term. These school system are in a horrible state and are damaging these kids emotionally and academically. That is why my son is now home-schooled because the madness had to stop.

      The Fed gov’t has it right, my exact complaint was that suspension does absolutely nothing to foster a successful learning environment. Furthermore, I do not pay for school to have my child miss school for some miniscule complaint. Once, more who are you punishing the child or the parent. Suspensions and expulsions do nothing but further thwart bad behavior. The so-called behavior and discipline policies has become petty and excuses for teachers not to do their jobs. In my opinion these teachers are not equipped to deal with children in an appropriate manner. As the regulation suggest they need to be trained on how to effectively handle their kids for a better, safe, and effective learning environment. I get egregious behavior needs to be dealt with; however, a child losing time in class only hurts their educational growth. I remember kids only being suspended for fighting. What ever happened to in-school detention that was given after school and required kids to do work. As I said, the gov’t has it right and in my opinion this is only a small step in the right direction to getting public education back on track.

  11. I read the letter to schools and was surprised that it didn’t address the disproportionate discipline against students with disabilities (except as related to African-American boys). It doesn’t seem to give guidance to schools about how to identify behavior caused by a health condition or how to manage that behavior.

    I was disappointed that the letter didn’t clarify the relationship between criminal courts and schools. In many cases students serve school punishment but then also face sanctions in court for the same offense. In my district a student who disrupts class can be suspended from school and also ticketed with a criminal misdemeanor. The ticket usually results in a day in court, a fine and/or community service. So the punishment is double for students who are ticketed. Even though school discipline can result in criminal prosecution, students aren’t able to refuse to incriminate themselves and are forced to write their confession by school officials prior to parents being notified.

    I don’t think the letter addresses these complex issues where guidance is needed.

    • I agree. I do not think kids should be allowed to confess or write a confession in the absence of an adult. And I agree that the letter should address issues of disability but the kids are protected by the Kids with Disability act. Teachers are making kids feel that they are bad, causing them to lose their confidence which eventually affects their academic performance. I also believe in some instances, they are emotionally and mentally abusing the kids are are treated differently especially when the kids recognizes the different treatment.

    • Avel, Yours is an excellent comment.

      Vera, You are absolutely right that kids should not be allowed to confess anything without an adult representing them there; however, the kids are not protected enough by the IDEA law. For one thing, there is no audit system of whether schools comply with the law. Instead, the Ed dept. works on a collaborative approach, which means there isn’t true accountability.

  12. RE OCR/DOE/DOJ letter to schools/ guidance on minority suspension/punishment rates. Noticeably absent is inclusion of similar excessive rates of minority prescriptions for psychotropic drugs for school kids (chemical restraint) under Medicaid. Also fail to include expanded use of PBIS initiative approaches (DOE) — utilization of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) approaches with the IDEA-2004 mandate for a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) which should be expanded to include FBA prior to school-administered punishments, not just disability kids.

  13. America is fortunate that neither Attorney General Holder or Secretary Duncan have the authority to pardon students who have committed felonious acts — and have been convicted of them — in State jurisdiction. It has been many years now in my state that local schools have present officers of the local superior court who can arrest and charge students of any race or national origin. If those students committing felonies on school property happen to be African-American or Hispanic to a great extent, so be it, let the Department of Justice sue and we will see if the wise men and women of the United States Supreme Court choose to selectively charge Caucasian students …. just because they happen not to be black — in order to bring racial equality to local jails.

    • Chad that is true if the students committing the felonies on school property happen to be African-American or Hispanics to a great extent so be it. But is should be so be it when the Caucasian or white kids do it. Because they all do. Great extent or not they do it so they should suffer the same punishment.

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