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Department of Justice Zeroes In On Zero-Tolerance Policies In Schools

The Obama administration takes aim at the school-to-prison pipeline.

Photo Credit: Alexander Raths via


After years of hard work on the part of community leaders, civil justice organizations, and students, could the Department of Education (DOE) and Department of Justice (DOJ) finally be shutting off the valve on the school-to-prison pipeline? New guidelines issued in a joint “Dear Colleague” letter from both agencies in early January indicate they’re trying to do just that. 

The 32-page document highlights discipline disparities in US schools, and provides recommendations for avoiding discriminatory treatment in the development and application of in-school discipline policies nationwide. It’s a direct response to growing concerns about the alarming number of students ending up in the justice system as a result of relatively routine and often minor infractions that could better be handled in school environments. It’s a condemnation of the clearly racialized disparities in how school discipline is applied.

The phenomenon of students ending up in jail, not classrooms, which s known as the “school to prison pipeline,” is the result of harsh “ zero tolerance” school discipline policies, which mandate tough penalties for students accused of a variety of infractions, some of them relatively benign. To make matters worse, rather than handling discipline internally, schools are turning the responsibility over to law enforcement officers stationed in schools, as well as outside law enforcement agencies and the court system. The result is situations like kicking students out of school for having Tylenol, suspending students for mixing up their lunchboxes, and harsh penalties for carrying LEGOs with toy guns to school, with students acquiring criminal records for misdeeds committed in the classroom. These policies are often poorly constructed and research suggests they are demonstrably ineffective, making their use in schools questionable.

The school-to-prison pipeline is routing thousands of US students into the justice system, denying them further educational opportunities and leaving them at a severe disadvantage. Most of those students are people of color, with nondisabled black students three times more likely than their white colleagues to be suspended or expelled from school. Thus, the pipeline entrenches racial injustice for the next generation, depriving students of access to education and society.

As the “Dear Colleague” letter states, evidence from DOE analysis of education environments suggests such policies are not being applied equally. “Although African-American students represent 15% of students in the [Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC)], they make up 35% of students suspended once, 44% of those suspended more than once, and 36% of students expelled. Further, over 50% of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.”

In response to mounting evidence on the school-to-prison pipeline and racial inequality in schools, the Obama administration has already settled with a school district in Meredian, Mississippi to address discrimination that kept students of color academically behind in comparison with white students. The “Dear Colleague Letter” is a natural extension of the administration’s work on the issue. The letter serves as a “significant guidance document,” according to the issuing agencies. While the statements within are not legally binding, they are intended to outline the nature of the problem for schools, provide information about when and how the DOE/DOJ investigate accusations of discrimination at schools, and offer suggestions for preventing discrimination.

Notably, this document focuses primarily on racial discrimination, not discrimination on the grounds of other identity factors like gender and disability status, although such discrimination is also banned under federal law. Disability discrimination in particular is a significant issue in school environments, as the document itself admits:

“...although students served by [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)] represent 12% of students in the country, they make up 19% of students suspended in school, 20% of students receiving out-of-school suspension once, 25% of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions, 19% of students expelled, 23% of students referred to law enforcement, and 23% of students receiving a school-related arrest. Additionally, students with disabilities (under the IDEA and Section 504 statutes) represent 14% of students, but nearly 76% of the students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools.”