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Are some U.S. school discipline policies too punitive?

January 8, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
The Education and Justice Departments released new guidelines on school discipline, urging schools to ensure that punishments comply with civil rights laws. Hari Sreenivasan gets debate on the recommendations from Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The Obama administration made a big move today on the question of school discipline policies around the country. It issued new guidelines to urge school administrators to ensure they are not being overly zealous with strict punishments for students that are sometimes called zero tolerance rules.

The Departments of Education and Justice warned schools to make sure they are being fair and equitable and that they are complying with civil rights laws.

Two years ago, the NewsHour’s Tom Bearden looked into a story in Texas that was drawing international attention to the unintended consequences of such policies, often for minority students.

TOM BEARDEN: Seventeen-year-old Diane Tran is still upset after spending 24 hours in jail for missing class. The 11th grade honor student in Willis, Texas, was locked up for contempt of court after being warned by a justice of the peace to stop skipping school.

The judge who issued that warning in April sentenced her to jail last month when the absences continued.

LANNY MORIARTY, judge: If you let one of them run loose, what are you going to do with the rest of them? Let them go too?

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TOM BEARDEN: But after Houston’s KHOU reported her story, the international spotlight fell on Tran and Texas’ school truancy laws, laws that were originally crafted in the mid-19th century to keep kids in class and prevent parents from pulling them out to work in the fields and then later in factories.

But for students like Tran, life is more complicated than it used to be. She is a straight-A student who holds down two jobs in order to help support her younger sister and another sibling in college.

DIANE TRAN, student at Willis High School: Well, the judge had warned me about missing too many days of school. But I just couldn’t help it.

TOM BEARDEN: Tran says that schedule led to more than 10 unexcused absences in six months, which under Texas law can warrant criminal Class C misdemeanor charges, fines up to $500 and potentially jail time.

After the news spread, the judge ended up removing the citation from her record. But the case sparked a new debate about the merits of criminalizing student behavior.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The new guidance calls for clearer distinctions about the role of safety personnel and making sure school administrators handle routine discipline problems, instead of turning them over to law enforcement.

Hari Sreenivasan, in our New York studio, explores the potential impact of the guidelines.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We get two views now.

Sherrilyn Ifill is president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. And Chester Finn is president of the Fordham Institute, which focuses on the reform of elementary and secondary education.

So, Ms. Ifill, let me start with you.

How big of a problem is this? What is the administration reacting to with these guidelines?

SHERRILYN IFILL, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund: Well, the administration today really took the important step of recognizing what is a widespread problem.

What we saw in the clip is just the tip of the iceberg, not only in Texas, but in states throughout this country. We litigated a case in Bryan, Tex., where students can get a Class C misdemeanor ticket for using profanity in high school. And this essentially then leaves students with a record and puts students on that school-to-prison pipeline that we talk about.

This whole idea of discipline, of changing what used to be infractions that got you sent to the vice principal’s office and criminalizing them has essentially introduced the criminal justice system into our schools, to the detriment of our children. And so what the administration really did today was to acknowledge this widespread problem, to take responsibility for investigating the results of these problems, and really trying to provide a framework for schools to think about how they can find alternative means to deal with what are real issues, discipline problems in the schools, to train police — to train school police, to train teachers, to train counselors to know how to deal with the problems that cause students to misbehave in school or, in the case of the student we saw, to miss school.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Finn, what about this idea that there is this school-to-prison pipeline, and we are overcriminalizing disciplinary behavior which could have been dealt inside the school?

CHESTER FINN, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute: A lot of it can be dealt win inside the school. There are also a lot of pipelines into prison, not just from schools. There’s poverty. There’s gangs. There’s neighborhoods. There’s bad parenting. There are any number of things that contribute to prison.

 

And if all that the administration had done was to offer school guidelines on how to handle discipline better, this probably would be a positive step. But there’s a huge iron fist inside this glove. And it’s in the joint guidance from the Justice Department and the Education Department, saying if you punish some kids more than you punish other kids and cannot prove that you didn’t intend to discriminate, we’re going to come after you and ding you as schools or school systems.

This is fundamentally a civil rights enforcement step, of the kind that is ultimately going to weaken discipline in our schools, at a very time when things like Newtown ought to have us seeking better order in our schools, rather than discouraging school systems from enforcing discipline.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ms. Ifill, are there two different types of violence that we should be targeting?

(CROSSTALK)

SHERRILYN IFILL: Absolutely.

It’s difficult to imagine how discipline in the schools would have changed what happened in Newtown. We’re talking about out-of-school suspension for children who disrupt the class or who are using profanity or who are called insubordinate.

In Maryland in the 2011-2012 school year, 675 kindergarten students were given out-of-school suspensions for infractions like using foul language or not respecting the teacher. This is what we’re really talking about.

The school shootings are absolute tragedies and absolutely have to be dealt with and addressed in terms of safety. But the issue we’re talking about is discipline as it relates to student within the schools. And we shouldn’t overreact or misguide our reaction to the tragedy that happened in Newtown by tightening the vice of discipline in the schools and criminalizing discipline in the schools.

And that’s why these guidelines are so welcome. It’s absolutely true this is a civil rights enforcement issue. And it is an important issue, because the disproportionate burden of this harsh criminalization of discipline falls on minority students, falls on African-American students, falls on Latino students, and as we saw in the clip that you showed, falls on Asian-American students.

So, some of what is suggested is in the guidelines and suggested by the Department of Justice today is the training for school personnel to even understand how they’re doing what they do. They’re not going to come in and sue the school districts. The first step they say explicitly in the guidelines is to work with schools to try and find a voluntary means of using alternative measures to deal with discipline problems.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Finn, what about the notion that Secretary Duncan impressed upon everyone over and over again, that they’re looking for locally developed approaches, that there isn’t one blanket policy? Is it possible?

CHESTER FINN: Well, what they have done is to discourage locally developed remedies by setting forth so many norms and requirements and documentation obligations and data gathering requirements, that the practical effect of this in our schools and school systems is going to be to deter school systems from developing workable discipline policies that ensure that the kids who do behave are going to be able to sit in orderly classrooms and listen to — hear their teacher and do their homework.

So I think Arne Duncan’s words are exactly right. But I think that the effect of his and the attorney general’s actions is going to be precisely the opposite.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ms. Ifill, what about this idea that we have heard from teachers saying, you know what, sometimes getting a student out of the class is the only way that I can try and retain any semblance of order in the class, that — and really would prefer to outsource this, I’m not a security professional, I can’t deal with all of this?

SHERRILYN IFILL: You know, in cases of violence, no one is suggesting that you don’t need school police. In fact, we’re not suggesting you shouldn’t have them.

There is a difference between a student who is violent and a student who uses profanity or a student who can’t sit in their seat or a student who doesn’t show up for class. And, in fact, actually, the very opposite happened of what Mr. Finn said. In fact, Arne Duncan and the administration based a lot of their ideas for the guidelines today on the experience of what happened in Baltimore City, where organizations like OSI Baltimore and the Advancement Project worked with the school system to try and change the school discipline code to get rid of out-of-school suspensions.

And a lot of the success is in Baltimore. That is the reason why they held the announcement there today, really impressed the administration. And that’s why they have empathized the idea of local changes, because they were impressed with what happened in one American city that figured out how to bring down out-of-school suspensions by working with the school district.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Finn, what do you think could attack some of these intense disparities even between states or even within districts for why some schools and some students are suspended so much more often than others?

CHESTER FINN: Well, what won’t attack them is 20 pages of gotcha guidance from the Justice Department and the Education Department, which is part of what the administration released today.

What will tackle them is both education of education personnel and school safety personnel — there is no doubt about that — and advice as to what a good discipline policy looks like, all of which is excellent. But at the end of the day, it’s the people that run our 50,000-school — sorry — 50,000-student school district that have to come up with these policies.

And it’s the principals of schools with 800 or 1,800 kids in them that have to know how to enforce these. And fear of Uncle Sam is not going to make them do a better job. It is going to chill their ability to do any job at all in this realm.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Chester Finn and Sherrilyn Ifill, thanks so much for your time.

SHERRILYN IFILL: Thank you.

CHESTER FINN: Thank you.