Holder: School discipline racially biased, too harsh

Attorney General Eric Holder called upon the nation’s school districts Wednesday to rethink “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies that he said disproportionately punish minorities and push too many students into the justice system.

“Alarming numbers of young people are suspended, expelled or even arrested for relatively minor transgressions like school uniform violations, schoolyard fights or showing 'disrespect' by laughing in class,” Holder said during a speech in Baltimore.

Holder’s remarks accompanied the release Wednesday of new federal guidance from the departments of Justice and Education pressing schools to adopt disciplinary policies that are “fair, nondiscriminatory, and effective.”

The guidance lays out the parameters of punishment as governed by federal civil rights protections, alternatives to exclusionary discipline and a comprehensive list of regulations on the books in every state.

Included in the guidance is a 32-page “Dear Colleague” letter putting schools on notice that the agencies are prepared to use their authority to investigate the claims of racial disparity in the punishment of students.

“As part of this commitment, we will enforce Federal laws to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination in school discipline,” the letter warns.

The action won praised from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which offered research showing that black students make up 36 percent of those expelled, though they represent only 15 percent of students.

"With the rise of law enforcement in our schools, the proliferation of zero tolerance policies, and misuse of suspensions and expulsions, our nation’s school discipline policies are pushing children … out of school," said Deborah J. Vagins, the ACLU’s senior legislative counsel.

The Education Department also issued a set of guiding principles meant to help schools comply with federal laws, a directory of disciplinary resources available to schools and an online compendium of state laws and regulations.

“Positive discipline policies” can actually foster safer school environments, without a heavy reliance on suspensions and expulsions," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.

“Schools also must understand their civil rights obligations and avoid unfair disciplinary practices,” he said. “We need to keep students in class where they can learn.”