Youth Justice


“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.