USDE & USDOJ Jointly Release Guidance on Discrimination & Suspensions

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The U.S. departments of Education and Justice jointly issued guidance earlier this week on how school leaders can ensure that discipline policies are drafted and applied in a manner that does not discriminate against racial or ethnic groups.  The joint departments also urged districts to seek alternatives to "exclusionary" penalties like suspension and expulsion that rob students of valuable classroom time, particularly for non-violent offenses. 


The new guidance clarifies how districts can meet their obligations under Title IV and Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which relate to fair and nondiscriminatory treatment among schools and recipients of federal aid.  Schools can end up in violation of the law if they draft policies that unfairly target specific student groups in word or in application if a legitimate educational justification does not exist or is not articulated.

Disciplinary policies, even those drafted without discriminatory intent, may also violate the federal laws if students from certain racial groups are disproportionately affected by them, an effect commonly known as "disparate impact," the guidance says. If students of one race are sanctioned at disproportionately higher rates under a given policy, educators should be prepared to demonstrate that the disciplinary measure is "necessary to meet an important educational goal" and that they have considered alternatives, the document says.

The guidance results from the work of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a collaboration that the two federal agencies launched in 2011 to address what's known as the "school-to-prison pipeline," the term critics use for policies that they say result in unnecessary and inappropriate referrals from schools to the criminal justice system. Advocates for school discipline reform have argued that such policies disproportionately impact minority racial and ethnic groups.

The "Dear Colleague letter” outlines schools' obligations to fair and nondiscriminatory discipline under the Civil Rights Act and details what investigators would use to determine if a complaint of discriminatory discipline practice is valid. The agencies also released a directory of federal school climate and discipline resources, an online catalog of state-level school discipline laws and regulations, and a guide of "best practices" for policymakers and district leaders who seek to improve their policies. 

The materials also include snapshots of data related to how disciplinary measures affect certain racial groups.  Specifically, it indicated that students of certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be disciplined more than their peers. Although African-American students represent 15 percent of students, they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled.  Further, over 50 percent of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or African-American.

While recognizing that disparities in student discipline rates in a school or district may be caused by a range of factors the joint group argues that the “substantial racial disparities of the kind reflected in the data are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color."

The guidance recommends a focus on positive environments and prevention efforts; clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences; and continuous efforts to ensure equity.


The agencies also assured educators that they would continue to investigate allegations of Title IV and Title VI violations triggered by complaints from parents, students, and community members, and that they may also initiate investigations as part of regular compliance monitoring activities.

Guidance & Resources

Source: USDE,  Edweek