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Child Watch® Column: "Steps Forward on School Discipline"

Release Date: January 17, 2014

Marian Wright Edelman

"The United States is far from providing each child with as much education as he can use. Our school system still primarily functions as a system of exclusion....[T]here is an enormous reservoir of talent among Negro and other poor youth. This society has to develop that talent. The unrealized capacities of many of our youth are an indictment of our society's lack of concern for justice and its proclivity for wasting human resources. As with so much else in this potentially great society, injustice and waste go together and endanger stability."

--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

In many American schools the holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is used as an opportunity to teach children about his life and legacy. But in too many of those same schools, Black and other nonwhite and poor children’s extraordinary talents are still being wasted today. Nearly three-quarters of Black and Latino fourth and eighth grade public school students cannot read or compute at grade level. Long after legal segregation has ended Black students are still most likely to be excluded from the classroom: Black students made up only 18 percent of students in public schools in 2009-2010 but were 40 percent of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions. A Black public school student is suspended every four seconds. When Black students are so often left behind and pushed out it should not surprise us that Black students are more than twice as likely to drop out of school as White students; each school day 763 Black high school students drop out.

So I applaud the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice for their recent action to address harmful school discipline policies that push so many thousands of the most vulnerable children out of school each year and into the juvenile justice and adult prison pipeline. If the education system is to do its part in dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ and in replacing it with a cradle to college, career and success pipeline, we must end the current practice where children in the greatest need are suspended and expelled from school mostly for nonviolent offenses including tardiness and truancy. I have never understood why you put a child out of school for not coming to school rather than determining why they are absent.

I hope the new set of resources released by the Departments of Education and Justice will help schools create positive, safe environments while relying less on exclusionary discipline tactics. These resources, officially known as “guidance,” will help schools and districts meet their legal responsibility to protect students from discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin as required under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the guidance offered is voluntary, school districts that fail to use effective strategies to address disparities in how discipline is applied could be subject to legal action from the Department of Education or Department of Justice. As we recognize the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and so many other important hard won victories in the Civil Rights Movement this year, we must remember those victories could be lost without meaningful enforcement of the laws advocates fought so hard to win half a century ago.  

The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has been speaking out against school discipline policies that continue to stack the odds against poor children and children of color for all of our 40 years. In 1975 CDF released School Suspensions: Are They Helping Children? At the time CDF found the vast majority of suspensions were for non-dangerous, nonviolent offenses. While the largest numbers of suspended students were White, suspensions disproportionately hurt more children who were Black, poor, older, and male. The great majority of suspensions served no demonstrated valid interests of children or schools. Instead they pushed children and their problems out into the streets, causing more problems for them, their parents, and their communities. Too much of what we learned then remains true today. Several of CDF’s state offices have been mobilizing students, youths, parents, advocates, educators, community leaders, and coalition partners to ensure students are not unfairly punished and pushed out of school into the prison pipeline. The new guidance is a valuable tool for them and all parents and communities.

While the guidance does not prohibit schools or districts from using any particular nondiscriminatory policy, it does call into question some policies that have historically excluded Black and Latino students disproportionately and are of questionable educational value—including “zero tolerance” discipline policies which require mandatory consequences for certain infractions, and policies that prevent students from returning to school after completion of a court sentence, which compound the often discriminatory effects of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Perhaps the most absurd and outrageous are policies which allow or require suspension or expulsion for students who have been truant—punishing children for being absent by forcing them to be absent.    

The new guidance recommendations are valuable to everyone concerned about success for all of the nation’s children—including students, parents, educators, and community members. Information is available at this government website for almost every school and district in the country showing how many students were suspended or expelled, whether Black or Latino students or students with disabilities were suspended at higher rates than other students, and how individual schools and districts compare. Check your own school district now. Check too your own school or district’s code of conduct to see whether the discipline policy is focused on creating a positive school climate and preventing misbehavior, whether consequences are clear, appropriate, and consistent, and whether there is a commitment to fairness in the application of discipline.

Then, follow up. The new guidance reiterates the longstanding right of parents to seek federal intervention on behalf of their children’s civil rights. If you are a parent and believe that your child has been discriminated against on the basis of his or her race, color, national origin, sex, or disability, file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) through the online form here. Go to school board meetings and ask questions. Meet with your neighbors to learn about the experience of students in your community’s schools. Use the additional resources provided by the government’s school discipline website. Participate in webinars about the guidance and learn what other organizations are doing to empower educators with alternatives to exclusionary discipline. With all of this information—what Dr. King called “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive”—you can make your case in the media, organize around school board elections, reach out to local and state elected officials, and come together with others to demand change.

For the Children’s Defense Fund’s first report in 1974, Children Out of School in America, we knocked on many thousands of doors in census tracts around the country. We found that 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, or growing up, was pregnant 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 share a common characteristic of differentness by virtue of race, income, physical, mental, or emotional “handicap,” and age. They are, for the most part, out of school not by choice but because they have been excluded. It is as if many school officials have decided that certain groups of children are beyond their responsibility and are expendable. Not only do they exclude these children, they frequently do so arbitrarily, discriminatorily, and with impunity. It’s way past time to end child exclusion from the indispensible lifeline of education. This time, like so many good laws and regulations, the true test of the value of this new guidance will be how well it is implemented. Let’s all join in to make sure everyone has a stake in helping our children strive and thrive in school. Their future and our nation’s future depend on it.

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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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Jake Streeter at: May 15, 2014
My problem with the treatment of minorities in inner city schools is that they are not being disciplined enough. There is plenty of punishment being handed out. But, there is almost no discipline. Discipline implies that there is a lesson being learned. But, all I see are students who are already struggling being placed in position to never be able to catch up. Teachers and school administrators need to be taught the difference between punishment and discipline.

Submitted by Teese at: January 28, 2014
Very informative, as usual. I have long asked why a child is suspended from school for non-violent incidents. I do feel that a child (any child) should not be allowed to disrupt class for those who want to learn, but what happened to in school detention with more school work?

Submitted by Ms.Vee at: January 28, 2014
Awesome info and resources/ Thank you. Dr. Edelman! Saw you for the first time on Black Girls Rock 2013. Then. I knew why the enemy of life and proper education tried to dismantle and abolish Head Start in U.S.! Look who God used to esrablish it!! Be encouraged today to finish what God entrusted you to do and I will assist. Blessings

Submitted by Peedee at: January 21, 2014
Thanks Marian for this timely reminder of how important education is to all children. As an educator, my job depends on kids "showing up", ready and willing to learn. I'll even take them not so ready and not so willing. I sit on my schools' intervention teams to come up with ideas, services and actions to persuade kids and their families to work with us. In many cases, we are begging our parents to get and stay involved for their children's success school experience. Thanks for encouraging parents to get involved.

Submitted by Les at: January 18, 2014
With a 30+ year career working in residential treatment with high risk/high need adolescents and seriously emotionally disturbed children, I told kids "I never met a kid I didn't like; however, I often dislike your behavior." We trained staff that a positive relationship needs to be cultivated to change kids difficult behavior and to respond with creative ideas that will support them.

Submitted by Anonymous at: January 18, 2014
I agree with you totally..There are far too many Black and other minorities who have the potential to do great things in this world, but are not being recognized because of such a poor educational system that is set up for them to fail..My own experience with my son was a rude awakening to find out that many administrators were deliberately sabotaging his changes to get ahead in order to make their school look good because of his academic achievements. The public school system would not challenge him enough, leaving it up to me to do what the teachers should have been doing. I ended up putting him in Catholic school where he skipped the 5th grade, and he was suited to do much more, but they too used him as an example for the school's chance to say how great their school was, etc. It was a struggle but he graduated from U.C. Santa Cruz with a B.S. degree in physics and a B.A degree in economics. He works now, but he would have continued his education in physics if our finances were more together. I can't believe that it was the Black instructors that messed over him in order to make their teachers look good. What a system.....

Submitted by NYAGAE at: January 18, 2014

Submitted by SALLY at: January 18, 2014
This is so important! We also need mentors who can help children see the value of going to school and, most importantly, believe in them so they can believe in themselves. My parents were highly educated, but we had such a dysfunctional family that I was malnourished to the point of developing pellagra. They never conveyed to me the value of education or exposed me to enriching activities such as theatre or family trips. They didn't care that I never did my homework. I hated school and played hooky by pretending to be sick, and no one was concerned enough to intervene. My parents would write excuses for me, and one year I actually missed over a quarter of the school year in ninth grade, with no consequences except that the principal yelled at me and suspended me, and my algebra teacher broke the news to me that I couldn't possibly catch up and pass the course in the last few weeks of the year. That only served to break down my mental barrier against bad grades so that I didn't even try any longer. Skipping school was my modus operandi throughout high school, and no one cared, even when my grades slipped so badly that I barely graduated. Children need to have people who care and encourage them. They need to be shown that learning is exciting and enriching, not something that is forced on them. In addition I was badly abused by my father, and no one cared about that, either. It was many years before I overcame the defeatist mindset I lived with throughout my childhood. I applaud you for your deep caring for children like me and many with more defeating problems than I had, and for the action you take on their behalf. You gave a memorable speech at my son's graduation from Brown in 1994.

Submitted by BethC at: January 18, 2014
I worked at a middle school for one year before retirement and was very upset about the treatment of the Black students. Police were called in for reasons beyond my comprehension. I had been in education for 30 years and did not need the data to tell me what was going on in this school. (However, I did collect the data and it supported my observations.) My office became the "safe haven" for some of these kids...why? because I was interested in what they had to say about their lives at school. Was their thinking always logical? No, but adults have to listen to know where a child is coming from before they assume they can help. Eventually, the principal told me..."I know you have worked well with the Black students but I don't want them coming to your office anymore." The new plan from the federal government is a good one but I believe that teachers and administrators have to learn to love these children and spend enough time with them to know their gifts. In my office were future civil rights organizers, poets, nurses, teachers, social workers and more. One caring adult is all a child needs to succeed.

Submitted by PresidentDon at: January 18, 2014
Black, poor, older, and male, gosh, those are the children causing the disruption in the classroom,so let's pick on the decent kids in the classroom. When the Black, poor, older, and male, threaten to get even with the teacher after school or in the classroom, it's so unfair that they are punished. Wake up Citizens, some of these children want to destroy the right of other children to get an education to prove,Society is against the Black, poor, older, and male.

Submitted by PresidentDon at: January 18, 2014
Black, poor, older, and male, gosh, those are the children causing the disruption in the classroom,so let's pick on the decent kids in the classroom. When the Black, poor, older, and male, threaten to get even with the teacher after school or in the classroom, it's so unfair that they are punished. Wake up Citizens, some of these children want to destroy the right of other children to get an education to prove,Society is against the Black, poor, older, and male.

Submitted by Shirley at: January 17, 2014
I agree, and think encouragement works better than harsh punishment. Teachers should know how to handle children, embarrasing them is not the answer. I had a family full of teachers. and some have retired.

Submitted by Apachecheynne at: January 17, 2014
One of the greatest hopes is to believe and take part in "No child Should be left behind" and with that Thank You Mrs Edelman for possessing the dignity and spirit for what you have accomplished. I learned about you attending college where I could see what education holds. Furthermore, I look to become apart of a non-profit that supports your endeavors and that of many people who fight against Poverty. I don't have money but I have my dignity that was afforded through educational pursuit of something more than me.

Submitted by ticked off lady at: January 17, 2014
Excellent reporting. This needs to be said more often. I've never understood how expelling a child from school had benefit. I've worked with hundreds of elementary age children for sixteen years in a mainly Hispanic community.

Submitted by Sylvia White at: January 17, 2014
I have witnessed same thing in working with children. How do they learn if you keep suspending them from school and you don't provide an alternative for them to learn.

Submitted by Ty at: January 17, 2014
I agree! As a Law Enforcement Lieutenant for the Long Beach Police Youth Services Division, I saw how schools relied on Law Enforcement to solve their problem with youth in the school. This needs to change!

Submitted by Bea at: January 17, 2014
As an Australian former teacher in low socioeconomic urban highschools ( which include junior high here) I appreciate the thrust of this article, and can readily apply it to our situation. However in an educational regime of restricted resources, dominated by "conservative" political views regarding class sizes and student support, some sympathy must be given to the teacher struggling to provide an education to all students while dealing with those who are disruptive and at times violent.What are the real alternatives to suspension and exclusion? There are few and they are ineffective, unfortunately. And I gather that often in the US a teacher's future employment can depend on test scores, which doesn't happen here ( yet...)

Submitted by Gaber at: January 17, 2014
First, let's stop putting the blame on teachers, society and diverse other administrators for children (youths) not working up to their potential. Let's place the blame where it strongly belongs: on PARENTS. Parents who have failed to step up as role models; parents who, if they spent as much time with their kids as they do pointing fingers and casting blame elsewhere, just might take a little more initiative in playing a role in their kids lives. Also, please understand there is a marked difference between discipline and punishment. Discipline is the fulcrum of higher achievement in children; It ensures responsibility which is tantamount to success. Punishment, on the other his what occurs when there is a lack of discipline which ultimately leads to failure to assume your assigned liabilities.A child is not irresponsible because he ( she) is bad, (they are BAD because they are IRRESPONSIBLE. Thank you AND CONTINUED SUCCESS