Obama Administration Issues Recommendations on Student Suspensions

In an attempt to stem the flow of the “school-to-prison” pipeline that civil rights activists say stems from overly zealous school discipline policies targeting black and Hispanic students, Attorney General Eric Holder has provided new non-binding guidelines on how students should be punished for misbehavior.

The recommendations released Wednesday encourage schools to ensure that all school personnel are trained in classroom management, conflict resolution and approaches to de-escalate classroom disruptions, reports the Associated Press. School security and police officers should also develop relationships with students and parents, and receive training.

The new recommendations are different from the zero-tolerance policies that became popular in the nineties but have since fallen out of favor.

“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,” says U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Assistant Secretary Catherine Lhamon in her blog. “These misbehaviors could be better addressed through measures that keep kids in school than by turning our kids away from the classroom door.” 

With regard to SROs and other types of school-based law enforcement, the guidance provided the following input:

School-based law enforcement officers… or other campus-based security can be an important part of a comprehensive school safety plan. It is important, however, for schols to recognize that any arrests or referrals to law enforcement can have negative collateral consequences for students, and that students of color and students with disabilities may experience disproportionate contact iwth law enforcement and the justice system.

For this reason, schools choosing to use school-based law enforcement officers should carefully ensure that these officers’ roles are focused on protecting the physical safety of the school or preventing the criminal conduct of persons other than students, while reducing inappropriate student referrals to law enforcement. Schools should also ensure that school-based law enforcement officers do not become involved in routine school disciplinary matters. For the same reasons, schools without campus-based security should avoid involving law enforcement or encouraging the use of law enforcement techniques (such as arrests, citations, ticketing, or court referrals) in routine disciplinary matters. To ensure the proper functioning of any school-based law enforcement program and to avoid negative unintended consequences, schools should provide clear definitions of the officers’ roles and responsibilities on campus, writen documentation of those roles, proper training, and continuous monitoring of the program’s activities through regular data collection and evaluation.

First and foremost, any school or district using school-based law enforcement officers should clearly define the officers’ roles and responsibilities at the schol as that of important partners in school safety efforts. This role should be focused on school safety, with the responsibility for addressing and preventing serious, real, and immediate threats to the physical safety of the school and its community. By contrast, school administrators and staff should have the role of maintaining order and handling routine disciplinary matters. By focusing officers’ roles on the critical issue of safety and avoiding inappropriate officer involvement in routine discipline matters, schools have found that they can reduce students’ involvement in the juvenile justice system and improve academice outcomes while improving safety. For SROs, their roles on campus typically involves three parts: law enforcer, informal counselor, and educator. In their capacity as counselors and educators, SROs can, and should, support positive school climate goals by developing positive relationships with students and staff, and helping to promote a safe, inclusive, and positive learning environment.

Additional guidance on the role of school-based law enforcement, as well as school staff and administrators can be found here.

Although schools are not bound by the recommendations, those that don’t comply could face strong actions.


Read the Dear Colleague letter.

Read the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance package.

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Photo Credit: European Parliament via Compfight cc

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