The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice issued joint guidance designed to help educational institutions develop policies and procedures for discipline that comply with applicable federal civil rights laws.

The January 8, 2014 press release:

The U.S. Department of Education (ED), in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), today released a school discipline guidance package that will assist states, districts and schools in developing practices and strategies to enhance school climate, and ensure those policies and practices comply with federal law. Even though incidents of school violence have decreased overall, too many schools are still struggling to create positive, safe environments. Schools can improve safety by making sure that climates are welcoming and that responses to misbehavior are fair, non-discriminatory and effective. Each year, significant numbers of students miss class due to suspensions and expulsions—even for minor infractions of school rules—and students of color and with disabilities are disproportionately impacted. The guidance package provides resources for creating safe and positive school climates, which are essential for boosting student academic success and closing achievement gaps.

“Effective teaching and learning cannot take place unless students feel safe at school,”U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. “Positive discipline policies can help create safer learning environments without relying heavily on suspensions and expulsions. Schools also must understand their civil rights obligations and avoid unfair disciplinary practices. We need to keep students in class where they can learn. These resources are a step in the right direction.”

The resource package consists of four components:

The Dear Colleague guidance letter on civil rights and discipline, prepared in conjunction with DOJ, describes how schools can meet their legal obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating against students on the basis of race, color or national origin;

The Guiding Principles document draws from emerging research and best practices to describe three key principles and related action steps that can help guide state and local efforts to improve school climate and school discipline;

The Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources indexes the extensive federal technical assistance and other resources related to school discipline and climate available to schools and districts; and

The Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations, an online catalogue of the laws and regulations related to school discipline in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, compares laws across states and jurisdictions.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,”Attorney General Eric Holder said. “This guidance will promote fair and effective disciplinary practices that will make schools safe, supportive and inclusive for all students. By ensuring federal civil rights protections, offering alternatives to exclusionary discipline and providing useful information to school resource officers, we can keep America’s young people safe and on the right path.”

The guidance package is a resource resulting from a collaborative project—the Supportive School Discipline Initiative (SSDI)—between ED and DOJ. The SSDI, launched in 2011, addresses the school-to-prison pipeline and the disciplinary policies and practices that can push students out of school and into the justice system. The initiative aims to support instead school discipline practices that foster safe, inclusive and positive learning environments while keeping students in school. The Department of Justice enforces Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or national origin in public schools, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin by schools, law enforcement agencies, and other recipients of federal financial assistance.

The guidance package also results from President Obama’s Now is the Time proposal to reduce gun violence. It called on ED to collect and disseminate best practices on school discipline policies and to help school districts develop and equitably implement their policies. To both continue ED/DOJ efforts in connection with SSDI and fulfill the administration’s commitment to “Now is the Time,” the guidance package was developed with additional input from civil rights advocates, major education organizations and philanthropic partners.

To view the resource documents, visit www.ed.gov/school-discipline.

An excerpt from the introduction to the joint “Dear Colleague” letter

The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice (Departments) are issuing this guidance to assist public elementary and secondary schools in meeting their obligations under Federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The Departments recognize the commitment and effort of educators across the United States to provide their students with an excellent education. The Departments believe that guidance on how to identify, avoid, and remedy discriminatory discipline will assist schools in providing all students with equal educational opportunities.

The Departments strongly support schools in their efforts to create and maintain safe and orderly educational environments that allow our nation’s students to learn and thrive. Many schools have adopted comprehensive, appropriate, and effective programs demonstrated to: (1) reduce disruption and misconduct; (2) support and reinforce positive behavior and character development; and (3) help students succeed. Successful programs may incorporate a wide range of strategies to reduce misbehavior and maintain a safe learning environment, including conflict resolution, restorative practices, counseling, and structured systems of positive interventions. The Departments recognize that schools may use disciplinary measures as part of a program to promote safe and orderly educational environments.

Regardless of the program adopted, Federal law prohibits public school districts from discriminating in the administration of student discipline based on certain personal characteristics. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is responsible for enforcing Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title IV), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000c et seq., which prohibits discrimination in public elementary and secondary schools based on race, color, or national origin, among other bases. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the DOJ have responsibility for enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000d et seq., and its implementing regulations, 34 C.F.R. Part 100, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin by recipients of Federal financial assistance. Specifically, OCR enforces Title VI with respect to schools and other recipients of Federal financial assistance from the Department of Education.

The Departments initiate investigations of student discipline policies and practices at particular schools based on complaints the Departments receive from students, parents, community members, and others about possible racial discrimination in student discipline. The Departments also may initiate investigations based on public reports of racial disparities in student discipline combined with other information, or as part of their regular compliance monitoring activities.

This guidance will help public elementary and secondary schools administer student discipline in a manner that does not discriminate on the basis of race. Federal law also prohibits discriminatory discipline based on other factors, including disability, religion, and sex. Those prohibitions are not specifically addressed in this guidance because they implicate separate statutes and sometimes different legal analyses (although this guidance applies to race discrimination against all students, including students of both sexes and students with disabilities). Schools are reminded, however, that they must ensure that their discipline policies and practices comply with all applicable constitutional requirements and Federal laws, including civil rights statutes and regulations.