May 01 2019

Protecting Students' Civil Rights: The Federal Role in School Discipline

Zero-tolerance school discipline policies that apply strong punishments—such as suspensions and expulsions—for nonviolent and subjective offenses, such as “willful defiance,” talking in class, tardiness, or truancy, often result in negative consequences for student academic achievement, attainment, and welfare.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights Data Collection demonstrate that students of color and students with disabilities, among other historically underserved students, are disproportionately suspended and expelled compared with their White and nondisabled peers.

Students of color and students with disabilities, among other historically underserved students, are disproportionately suspended and expelled compared with their White and nondisabled peers.

In 2014, the Obama administration issued a voluntary guidance to support state and local efforts to end exclusionary and discriminatory school discipline practices that prevent students from having equal access to educational opportunity. The guidance describes how schools can meet their legal obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating against students on the basis of race, color, or national origin. In December 2018, the Trump administration rescinded this guidance and all supporting resources.

The current administration maintains that the guidance recommended policies and practices that were making schools less safe, despite a substantial body of research showing that zero-tolerance policies and exclusionary discipline practices for nonviolent behavior are largely ineffective in changing student behavior or creating safe learning environments.

Policies and practices that are supported by research include:

  • Replacing zero-tolerance policies and the use of suspensions and expulsions for low-level offenses with strategies that teach social-emotional skills.
  • Providing targeted support for educators, to help them learn proactive classroom management, cooperative learning, and other approaches that encourage and reinforce positive classroom behavior and contribute to students’ immediate and long-term behavioral change.
  • Providing training on implicit bias and asset-based youth development for all teachers and administrators, school resource officers, police, juvenile court judges, and others dealing with youth.
  • Developing and implementing model school discipline policy and agreements that clarify when educator discipline versus law enforcement discipline is warranted.
  • Creating relationship-centered schools that support strong family and community engagement.

Several states and districts have successfully adopted these approaches to create more inclusive learning environments. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2017 survey, since efforts to reduce school exclusions have been underway, schools across the nation are becoming safer.

  • The percentage of public schools recording one or more incidents of violence, theft, or other crimes was lower in 2015–16 (79%) than in every prior survey year. (Incident rates ranged from 85 to 89% between 1999–2000 and 2009–10.)
  • The percentage of public schools reporting one or more incidents of violence, theft, or other crimes to policy was lower in 2015–16 (47%) than in every prior survey year (it ranged from 60% to 65% between 1999–2000 and 2009–10).
  • The percentage of schools taking at least one serious disciplinary action against a student was lower in 2015–16 than in 2003–04 for all offenses except the distribution, possession, or use of alcohol, for which there was no measurable difference between the 2 years.

The Trump administration’s rescission of the guidance does not change federal anti-discrimination laws, but it does deny schools and districts a research-based set of resources for creating safe, inclusive learning environments and information about how to apply these policies in a nondiscriminatory manner, and how to mitigate or eliminate harmful practices. The decision also eliminates the current focus on correcting discriminatory application of state and district discipline policies and practices and identifying the appropriate remedy when a civil rights violation occurs.


Protecting Students' Civil Rights: The Federal Role in School Discipline​ by Jessica Cardichon and Linda Darling-Hammond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was underwritten by core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute provided by the Sandler Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not of our funders.