- In a joint Dear Colleague letter issued Friday, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice advised schools to ensure their discipline policies and practices don't discriminate against students based on race, color or national origin.
- The department's investigations into districts' compliance with Title VI — the federal civil rights law that protects against such discrimination — "have demonstrated that discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in student discipline was, and continues to be, a significant concern," the departments wrote.
- The Education and Justice departments further said they would "vigorously enforce Federal laws to eliminate unlawful discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in student discipline."
The letter reminding districts to be fair in their discipline policies comes amid a reported rise in student behavioral and mental health concerns since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
"In recent years, educators, students, and families have faced extraordinary and unprecedented challenges in their schools and communities," the departments wrote. "Against this backdrop of sustained challenges and interrupted learning, students particularly benefit from attending class, fully engaged and in learning environments that are positive, inclusive, and safe."
Alongside the guidance, the department also released several strategies to use in place of exclusionary discipline, such as relying on responsive and restorative practices.
The long-awaited guidance marks one of the most comprehensive and clear messages from the Biden administration on where it stands regarding the issue of race in exclusionary school discipline practices, which have been documented to disproportionately impact students of color.
Under the leadership of Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, the agency was expected to reinstate or expand similar Obama-era guidance meant to curb the disproportionate impact of punitive school discipline practices on students of color. Lhamon also led the Office for Civil Rights under the Obama administration.
That 2014 guidance was rescinded four years later under former President Donald Trump.
While the current department did not reinstate the 2014 guidance — which is still marked as “under review” by the Department of Education as of July 2021 — the letter released Friday is reminiscent of its predecessor.
It also highlights disparities in districts' discipline policies and practices through 14 districts investigated over the past decade by the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, dating back to the Obama administration.
These cases — which include examples of practices harming Black, Latino and Native American students — reflect the "long-standing approach and continuity in the Departments' enforcement practices over time," said the Education Department in a press release accompanying the resource.
The guidance builds on other recent signals from the Education Department that it is cracking down on Title VI violations.
Last week, the department issued a separate Dear Colleague letter highlighting the rise in antisemitism in schools and reminding districts that they must address harassment and discrimination against students who are or are perceived to be Jewish. Districts that fail to do so could be investigated otherwise, it warned.
Lhamon also stated in an interview with K-12 Dive last month that the department has revived systemic reviews of school districts accused of racial discrimination in their practices and policies, including but not limited to school discipline. These kinds of investigations were put on a temporary hiatus under the Trump administration.
Additionally, in March, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sent a letter to school districts and leaders, among others, calling for an end to corporal punishment in schools, and pointing out that Black students are 2.3 times more likely than their White peers to experience it.
"Schools should be safe places where all students and educators interact in positive ways that foster students' growth, belonging, and dignity — not places that teach or exacerbate violence and fear," he said.