Child Watch® Column: "Decriminalizing School Discipline"

Release Date: September 26, 2014

Marian Wright Edelman

I believe the purpose of public schools is to educate not exclude children and to help identify and meet child needs, not make children serve adult convenience, self interest, and systems. So huge reforms are required in school discipline policies and practices across our nation as school pushout has worsened in past decades with the criminalization of children at younger and younger ages aided and abetted by school expulsion and suspension policies which funnel children into the prison pipeline often crippling them for life.

Nationally, the number of secondary school students suspended or expelled during a school year increased about 40 percent from 1 in 13 in 1972–73 to 1 in 9 in 2009–10 although we know suspensions are more harmful than helpful to children. Schools with higher suspension and expulsion rates have worse school climates, lower student academic achievement, and are often less safe. Racially discriminatory school discipline policies contribute to the Cradle to Prison Pipeline® crisis with a Black boy born in 2001 having a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime and a Latino boy a 1 in 6 chance of the same fate.

The March 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights included troubling findings on how unfair and excessive school discipline policies can be beginning as early as preschool. But there is some encouraging news. Some school districts are significantly reforming their discipline policies and, more fundamentally, how they view and treat children by moving away from harsh and exclusionary policies toward more positive and restorative approaches that improve discipline outcomes and keep children in school. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) applauds such school district actions and hopes that districts across the country will follow.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest in the country, has the largest school police force in the nation closely followed by New York. Of approximately 9,000 arrests and tickets issued to LAUSD children in the 2011-12 school year, 93 percent involved Black and Latino students. The Labor/Community Strategy Center reported the district had the highest “Student Criminalization Rate” — the number of arrests and tickets or citations per 100 students — among all the largest districts in the country. In May 2013, after years of struggle, community organizing, and advocacy by many organizations that make up Dignity in Schools-Los Angeles and the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition — including the Children’s Defense Fund-California — the school board adopted sweeping policy reforms in the School Climate Bill of Rights. It eliminated suspensions for the subjective catch-all category known as “willful defiance” and directed all district schools to implement PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) and restorative justice programs to ensure students access to schools that reflect caring, inclusive, safe, and healthy learning environments.

The Los Angeles Unified School District announced additional positive changes recently thanks to efforts led by Public Counsel and the Labor/Community Strategy Center. The district will stop issuing citations for most campus fights and many other minor infractions. School police will follow a step-by-step formula that should result in students being referred to off-site counseling, mental health services, or other school- and community-based solutions for offenses that until now sent them to court or probation. Juvenile Court Judge Donna Groman said about the new protocol: “Juvenile court should be the last resort for youths who commit minor school-based offenses. The education system is better equipped to address behaviors displayed at the school level through restorative justice and other alternative means.” 

I agree with Judge Groman and applaud LAUSD and hope we can promote their new policy both nationally and statewide as a model response. Youths with serious attendance problems are being sent to counselors instead of courtrooms in a return to common sense. I have never understood why we exclude children from school for not coming to school rather than finding out why they are not coming to school.

Los Angeles is not the only large school system moving in the right direction. Positive change is happening throughout the state of Maryland. Nearly 1 in 5 students was being suspended in Baltimore’s 85,000 student school district annually until a new discipline code was implemented in 2008 emphasizing intervention and prevention and minimizing out-of-school suspensions and expulsions — especially for subjective offenses like disrespect, insubordination, and classroom disruption. The first year after the new code’s adoption, out-of-school suspensions dropped 26 percent. Baltimore’s actions helped spark a statewide review of school discipline policies and in 2012 Maryland’s State Board of Education released a groundbreaking discipline study. In January 2014 the state released a new progressive discipline framework for all Maryland districts and more districts are seeing results. Montgomery County, the state’s largest school system, has long been a national leader in documenting and closing its achievement gaps. Several years ago, it began reforming discipline policies. Out-of-school suspensions for high school students in Montgomery County dropped 37 percent in one year (2012-13 to 2013-14) also reducing racial disparities. A new code of conduct this school year emphasizes out-of-school suspensions as a last resort and provides steps to help students learn from their mistakes.

Over the past two years, with support from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the Children’s Defense Fund has partnered with AASA, The School Superintendents Association, on child health enrollment and school discipline policies. We recently released a joint national survey of superintendents across the nation. Ninety-two percent of superintendents who responded believe out-of-school suspensions have negative consequences and half the responding superintendents indicated that reducing the use of suspension is important or very important to their leadership agendas. This is very good news for children and we need to accelerate the decriminalization of our nation’s school discipline policies and practices by lifting up and building on successes. In Los Angeles, the time is ripe for the school district to fully implement and resource the School Climate Bill of Rights and more states can follow Maryland’s statewide effort to prod local school decisions toward positive and fairer restorative discipline policies. We know what works and what doesn’t work for children and need to place the highest priority on keeping students in school, safe, and learning. Engaged students and communities working with committed educators are showing that change is more than necessary — it’s possible. It is critically important that public schools entrusted with educating and preparing children for college, work and life stop feeding them into the juvenile and criminal justice systems with zero tolerance policies especially for nonviolent offenses like tardiness and truancy or catchall subjective offenses like disruption or disrespect. Denying a child an education is hardly in the child or society’s best interest.     

As our nation’s children become majority non-White in 2019, greater sensitivity and awareness of the children being taught is essential and precautions must be taken so that “differentness” of race, gender, culture, and special needs or gifts are better understood and respected.

In our first Children’s Defense Fund report in 1974, Children Out of School in America, we examined all official federal and state data to determine how many children were not in school, building on a local Massachusetts Advocacy Group’s report on children out of school in Boston. As we wrote at the time: “We found it was a national problem and that 2 million children were out of school including 750,000 between 7-13 years old. But the statistics did not tell us who those children were and why they were out of school. So CDF staff knocked on many thousands of doors in census tracts across the country to learn more. We found that the 7-13 year olds were largely children with physical, mental and emotional disabilities but school discipline policies were a major contributor to school exclusion. If a child was not White, or was White but not middle class, did not speak English, was poor, needed special help with seeing, hearing, walking, reading, learning, adjusting, growing up, was pregnant or married at age 15, was not ‘smart enough’ or was ‘too smart,’ then, in too many places, school officials decided school was not the place for that child. In sum, out of school children shared a common characteristic of differentness by virtue of race, income, physical, mental or emotional ‘handicap,’ and age. They were for the most part, out of school not by choice but because they had been excluded. It is as if many school officials had decided that certain groups of children were beyond their responsibility and were expendable. They excluded them arbitrarily, discriminatorily and with impunity.”

No child is expendable and every child deserves a right to learn and grow up to be the best they can be. We must increase the positive momentum that is building so once again schools educate children, help meet their individual needs and prepare them for the future.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Submitted by jen at: March 11, 2016
My son was just suspended for fighting with a child that has been slapping him in the face and taunting him. He was suspended for five days. It was his first offence. He got five days out of school. He has had a lot of medical problems and already is struggling with makeup he is out five days and the principal told us that his teachers have no obligation to get him the makeup work. She reffered us to the teachers websites which only one out of eight has. This is 2016 and we are in Maryland singled out above for it progressive stance. There may be a worksheet with some suggestions on it in Maryland and maybe the suggestions are followed in some places but sadly at least where I am its just words on a peice of paper. Between the medical absences and now suspension I dont know how my son will pass. I had intervened this term because now in high school he never gets all his makeup work from teachers and too often thet mark him down when he turns it in. To say a medically challenged child is at a disadvantage is the understatement of the year. Kudos to Md for writing down some words that look goid on paper. Nice to hear that some school districts have decided to follow it. But when there are no teeth behind a document it. tends to be ignored. I so admire Marion Edelman though and thank you so much for fighting the good fight. I fear high school especially has become such a discouraging place in so many ways there may be no saving it. With computers and online learning maybe we should stop trying to revive a dead horse.

Submitted by a mother at: November 12, 2015
I sincerely hope that restorative justice is not used to make children into the cause of their problems. I would like to see the system put in the perpetrator's chair. The stressors children survive or don't survive are more enormous as civilization degrades. For the sake of this generation, keep the faults of a sick society on the hot seat, while giving children only as much responsibility that is appropriate and rightful for them to handle.