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United Nations Panel Recommends Changes to U.S. School Discipline

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A panel of experts convened by the United Nations has recommended changes to U.S. school discipline, including the removal of police from schools, to equitable treatment of black youths.

The U.N. working group of experts on people of African descent visited various cities around the United States in January, hearing testimony from experts and advocacy groups about equity concerns in areas like criminal justice, housing, and education. Those included student groups who've pushed for a reduction in zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools and a South Carolina student who was arrested for protesting her classmate's violent arrest, which made headlines when a video quickly spread online.

"We were informed that across the country there are police in the schools arresting children for minor offences," the panel said in a statement to the media after its visit. "The police have authority to detain, frisk and arrest children in school. Zero tolerance policies and heavy-handed efforts to increase security in schools have led to excessive penalization and harassment of African American children through racial profiling. African American children are more likely to face harsh disciplinary measures than White children. This phenomenon has been sadly described as 'the school to prison pipeline.'"

The group said it was also concerned by reports of de facto segregation in schools, "under-funding and closure of schools that are particularly in poor neighborhoods with significant African American populations" and of school curricula that doesn't sufficiently cover "the historical facts concerning the period of colonization and enslavement."

"This history, crucial in the organization of the current American society is taught differently by states, and fails to adequately address the root causes of racial inequality and injustice," the statement said. "Consequently, this contributes to the structural invisibility of African-Americans."

Included in its list of recommendations was a call to revisit school security policies and to abolish school policing. The group also recommended the repeal of misdemeanor laws like the "disturbing schools" law that led to the South Carolina student arrest, the prohibition of restraint and seclusion in schools, and more counseling for mental health issues.

The U.N. group's report comes in the midst of overlapping discussions about how to best carry out discipline in U.S. schools. Federal data consistently show higher rates of school-based arrests and suspensions for students of color, particularly for black students. Some advocacy groups have responded by pushing for the replacement of classroom removals, like suspensions, with alternatives like restorative justice. But some have complained that districts have made such changes without providing educators with the resources to adequately carry them out, resulting in chaotic classroom environments.

And, while some civil rights groups say there is no role for police in schools, others have said concerns about overly punitive discipline can be addressed through carefully crafted agreements between districts and law enforcement agencies.

"We recommend the Government develop guidelines on how to ensure school discipline policies and practices are in compliance with international human rights standards," the U.N. panel's recommendations said. "Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) and restorative practices in school discipline should be used for reducing disciplinary incidents and improving learning in schools."

"The Department of Education should study zero tolerance policies and their disparate impact on African American students," it continued. "A Taskforce should be created to specifically focus on realigning and reengaging students who have been dismissed from educational institutions as part of a zero tolerance policy."

The U.N. panel heard testimony in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Jackson, Miss., Chicago, and New York City.

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