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S.C. Student Arrest: Arne Duncan Says 'Schools Must Be Safe Havens'

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stopped to address civil rights and school discipline at a press conference in Memphis, Tenn., today, a few days after internet videos of a violent school arrest in South Carolina drew mass attention to the issues.

"Our schools must be a pathway to opportunity, not a pipeline to prison," he said.

Duncan is no stranger to discussions about these issues. The Obama administration, including the departments of education and justice, have taken lead roles in challenging schools to "rethink discipline" by limiting suspensions, reworking zero-tolerance policies, and ensuring that students of all races and ethnicities receive equal treatment at school.

"This week we've been forced to again confront how far we still have to go in the struggle for true equality," Duncan said in Memphis.

Because the Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into the South Carolina incident, Duncan said he couldn't address specifics of that situation. But he did use the incident as a spring board to discuss broader issues:

"But I do want to talk about what happens in schools across America every single day, even when it's not captured on video. Schools must be safe havens. They must be filled with compassion and love. But it's clear that as a nation, we are severely underestimating the traumatic impact of our children being subject to, or even just seeing or witnessing, unnecessary physical force and arrests in our schools and classrooms. If we want to maintain the trust of parents and communities in our schools, we must start by treating our children with respect and human dignity.

"As I've said repeatedly, every year, every single year, our K-12 schools suspend roughly three and a half million students, and refer a quarter of a million children to the police for arrest. If our collective goal is to end the school-to-prison pipeline, that is simply unacceptable. These aren't just somehow numbers, or statistics, they're our children. And it should come as no surprise that these children being suspended and arrested are disproportionately students of color and students with disabilities. We can no longer have this conversation, let alone fix the problem, if we're unwilling to talk about race.

"Schools must be productive places for teaching and learning, but we also have to rethink how we create safe and supportive learning environments for all of our students, and for the adults in school, and the staff. Our schools must be a pathway to opportunity, not a pipeline to prison. And no student should feel unsafe or fearful of being harmed while in school, in class.

"To do better, we also have to take a hard look at ourselves, and our history, and the implicit biases that we all carry. The ugly truth - the harsh reality - is that still today in 2015, some children are far more likely to face harsh discipline than others, simply because of their zip code or the color of their skin. That's unacceptable and not a reality anybody should be willing to live with."


Further reading on police in schools:

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