How Did State Policies Change Under Former Federal Guidance on School Discipline?


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After much speculation, the U.S. Department of Education officially rescinded Obama-era guidance on school discipline in December. Prior to the decision, the Federal Commission on School Safety, led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, discussed the possibility of rescinding, or at least altering the guidance, under the idea that the guidance may hamstring schools’ ability to address concerns with disruptive or potentially violent students.

This guidance was issued in 2014 as a joint effort between the U.S. departments of Education and Justice, directing school leaders to ensure that discipline policies are applied in a nondiscriminatory manner. It also referenced data released by the Office for Civil Rights that revealed significant disparities in the application of exclusionary discipline measures based on race, gender and disability status. Generally, the guidance encouraged school leaders to seek alternatives to exclusionary discipline and provided information on the legal issues associated with improper application of school discipline.

While some of the commission’s recommendations — like directing resources toward social-emotional learning and mental health — align with encouraging the use of school discipline alternatives, civil rights advocacy groups largely oppose the move to rescind and continue to raise concerns around the disparate application of school discipline.

So, what does this mean for states? While the guidance did not directly impact state policy, it was intended to encourage states and districts to adopt less punitive practices — and we see that many states have done so in recent years. Our recently released report, The Status of School Discipline in State Policy, dives into how state policies have shifted during this period of change.

Bills Related to Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Reform from 200 to 2018In addition to summarizing key findings from legislative and statutory research and points of considerations for policymakers, this report outlines trends in enacted state legislation from 2000 to 2018 — showing a general uptick in the number of reform bills passed in state legislatures and a general downturn in zero-tolerance legislation. (For purposes of this analysis, zero-tolerance legislation refers to bills that expand the allowable use of suspension or expulsion in a state, while reform legislation refers to bills that limit the use of suspension or expulsion and/or encourage the use of alternative school discipline strategies.)

While states had generally been moving away from zero-tolerance policies and toward less-punitive models prior to the guidance being issued, it seems that there was a spike in reform legislation after 2014. Over the last five years, states enacted about seven zero-tolerance bills. Within that same time frame, state legislatures enacted at least 36 reform-oriented bills.

While it’s difficult to say what the state level response will be — if any — to the rescinded guidance, we will continue tracking legislation in this space. You can, too, by following our State Education Policy Tracking resource.

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Senior Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States |

Alyssa Rafa is a former senior policy analyst at Education Commission of the States.

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