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Echoes of Brown in School Discipline


 Leticia Smith-Evans

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education students in our nation's schools are still being treated differently because of the color of their skin. In Brown, the Court held that separate but equal educational facilities are inherently unequal; yet data today show that many students of color do not have equal access to educational opportunities—instead, they are being disproportionately suspended from and pushed out of schools. Unfortunately, more often than not, there is no sound justification for the punitive practice, which causes many students of color to miss valuable academic instruction and time with their peers. 

Most educators should know that discipline is a tool designed to teach, not to punish.  So, ideally students should learn from discipline.  But, the sad truth is that 95% of out-of-school suspensions handed out during the 2011-2012 school year were received for non-violent offenses like a minor infraction, such as a uniform violation, or a subjective offense, such as disrespect.  And, research shows that African American and other students of color are not being suspended at disproportionately high rates because they misbehave more, but rather because of racial discrimination. 

At a time when opportunity gaps exist that largely correlate to a student's race, the joint guidance issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice was imperative. It is critical that the individuals disciplining students in a discriminatory manner be held accountable for their actions.  Discipline is a teaching tool that must be used in a responsible, not haphazard, manner. 

The issuance of the discipline guidance is, too, a landmark step: It was the federal government's firmest statement on the need to eliminate racial disparities in school discipline in our nation's schools.  It makes clear that, among other things, all schools receiving federal funds—public and charter alike—must abide by civil rights laws, and that schools and districts that violate the civil rights of students will be held accountable for their actions. 

The guidance should be embraced by all members of school communities, and they should leverage multi-stakeholder approaches to addressing the disparities they see.  School communities should be proactive and take affirmative steps to close opportunity gaps and guarantee all students have access to equal educational opportunities.  Classroom educators should closely consider the impact of their actions and the actions of their peers.  Administrators should collect and analyze the data necessary to inform their professional development needs.  Boards of education and district leaders should share school- and district-level data with their larger school communities and the public.  Schools should weave civil rights priorities into already-existing professional development programs and curricula.  Advocates and community members should ask administrators and school boards to share their discipline data.  

As we approach 60 years after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown, the time is long past to ensure that true, meaningful, equal opportunities exist for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, disability status, English-learner status, or socioeconomic status.  Students irrespective of their differences should be accepted and welcomed at every schoolhouse door.  The federal government's discipline guidance is a step in that direction.

Leticia Smith-Evans is the interim director of the education practice at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc., in New York City and Washington.

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