May | June 2012

Justice and Education Departments Move Forward in Joint Effort
To Keep Children In School and Out of the Justice System

Photo of teenagers in a school hallway

On July 21, 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the creation of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative (SSDI). The initiative is a collaboration between the two agencies to target harsh and exclusionary school disciplinary policies and in-school arrests that push youth out of school and into the justice system, a process also known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

The announcement of the new initiative came 2 days after the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center released findings of a study on the impact of school disciplinary practices on students' academic success and juvenile justice involvement.

Among other findings, the study determined that only 3 percent of disciplinary actions were for conduct for which state law mandates suspensions and expulsions; the rest of the disciplinary actions were made at the discretion of school officials, primarily in response to violations of local schools' conduct codes. In addition, minority youth and children with disabilities were disciplined more harshly for similar or less serious infractions than were their peers. The researchers also found that when a student was suspended or expelled, his or her likelihood of being involved in the juvenile justice system the subsequent year increased significantly.

"OJJDP does research to support best practices, and one of the things we've learned is that the minute a youth sets foot in detention or confinement, their prospects for success and having a job decrease dramatically and the likelihood that they will end up in the adult criminal system increases exponentially," said OJJDP Acting Administrator Melodee Hanes in a recent interview. "That's why SSDI is one of our top priorities."

The response to the CSG findings from national media outlets has been strong. The New York Times, National Public Radio, and The Washington Post have all featured followup stories about the report, underscoring the urgent need to begin a national dialog to address school discipline policies and practices. In addition, numerous philanthropic organizations with a focus on school discipline have reached out to the U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Justice (DOJ) to see how they might assist in addressing the issue.

Since the initiative was announced in July 2011, significant progress has been made. Within a month of launching the initiative, DOJ and ED had organized a Justice-Education workgroup, led by OJJDP and ED staff. More than 30 federal staff are currently participating in 4 sets of activities:

  • Developing a national consensus on policies and best practices for addressing counterproductive school discipline practices.
  • Coordinating research and data collection efforts.
  • Issuing guidance documents to help states and localities address school discipline more effectively.
  • Developing training and resources to help schools and school-related stakeholders (e.g., school-based law enforcement, courts, and probation) adopt more positive strategies and ensure compliance with civil rights laws.

On March 11–13, 2012, the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children held the first-ever National Leadership Summit on School-Justice Partnerships. The summit, which took place in New York City, brought together juvenile court judges, school administrators, juvenile justice professionals, educators, and researchers from nearly every state and territory to focus attention on the importance of school-justice partnerships and evidence-based strategies that can help students stay in school and out of the juvenile justice system.

OJJDP Acting Administrator Hanes and Education Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali offered keynote remarks. "The challenges we face are too big, too many, and too complex for any one of us to tackle alone," Acting Administrator Hanes said. "That is why we continue to pursue partnerships among our colleagues in the federal government, and to work closely with states, localities, and the nonprofit and philanthropic communities." Hanes also joined fellow panelists in an Education Funders Strategy Group session to provide information about the goals and expected outcomes of SSDI and attended meetings at the summit.

SSDI workgroup members provided the summit teams with state-specific packets of base-level data to help attendees begin planning.

The CSG Justice Center's report also demonstrates that the use of suspension and expulsion varies greatly among schools, even among schools with similar student populations and identical discipline policies, a discrepancy that indicates a high level of individual discretion in school administrators' application of discipline policies. In addition, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and professionals in law enforcement, the courts, and probation often have varying perspectives on school discipline.

With funding from OJJDP, Atlantic Philanthropies, and the California Endowment, CSG Justice Center staff are managing a process that includes focus group discussions to build consensus on school discipline and address a range of topics, including law enforcement and school safety, methods for measuring school safety, child and adolescent health, and juvenile courts.

Focus group members represent a broad range of stakeholders—law enforcement professionals; community members; education practitioners; representatives from federal agencies; private foundation executives; child, adolescent, and school-based health experts; court officials; and juvenile justice practitioners. During the next 12–18 months, advisory groups composed of selected focus group members will prepare a report with recommendations for improving school discipline policies and practices. The report will be provided to state and federal legislators, policymakers, and national organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislators, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors' Association.

This spring, a listening session in Washington, DC, and two Webinars were held to identify resources, tools, and training products that will fill knowledge gaps and promote effective school discipline without resorting inappropriately to suspension, expulsion, or arrest. These sessions are laying the groundwork for the development of a toolkit for schools and other stakeholders to use as they address discipline issues.

Resources:

The CSG Justice Center's report, Breaking Schools' Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Students' Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement, is available on the center's Web site. Presentations from the 8 plenaries and 12 breakout sessions at the National Leadership Summit on School-Justice Partnerships are also available online.