Holder says Texas suspensions a “wake-up call”

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

The Justice Department and the Department of Education are starting a new program to prevent schools from calling the cops to deal with less-serious disciplinary issues. The new effort is called the Supportive School Discipline Initiative.

"Maintaining safe and supportive school climates is absolutely critical, and we are concerned about the rising rates and disparities in discipline in our nation's schools," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. The program is supposed to halt what advocates call the "school-to-prison pipeline." When principals call the cops on students instead of disciplining them within school, students are more likely to drop out and eventually join the country's enormous prison population, advocates say.

The federal government doesn't actually have any power to change schools' discipline policies, however. (Just last October, Duncan told schools to "eliminate" bullying altogether. We're betting that hasn't quite happened yet.) Duncan says the initiative will work to "build consensus" and awareness about the issue, while partnering with non-profits.

According to EdWeek, Attorney General Eric Holder referenced a recent study finding that 60 percent of Texas school children are suspended or expelled between 7th grade and when they graduate. "I think these numbers are kind of a wake-up call," he said yesterday. "It's obvious we can do better."

The study by the Council of State Governments followed every single Texas 7th grader throughout high school, and found that the vast majority were suspended, expelled or faced in-school suspensions. Only 3 percent of the punishments fell under the heading of felony-level offenses, which under state law must result in expulsion. The researchers found that students of all races were more or less equally likely to commit these most severe kinds of offenses, while black and Hispanic students were much more likely to be punished for lesser offenses, which tend to fall under the discretion of the teacher or principal.

"African-American students and those with particular educational disabilities experience a disproportionately high rate of removal from the classroom for disciplinary reasons," study author Mike Thompson told NPR.

A report from the advocacy group Appleseed found that cops handed out 1,000 Class C misdemeanor tickets to elementary school-aged kids over six years in 10 districts in Texas. The most common reason for the tickets were leaving class without permission or disorderly conduct. In the past, such offenses would have landed those youngsters in the principal's office--not in court. The study found that children as young as 6 received tickets.

In 1992, about 10 percent of students reported being the victim of crime (including theft) at school. In 2007, that figure had dropped to 4 percent, according to Education Department statistics.