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Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarks at the Department of Justice and Department of Education School Discipline Guidance Rollout at Frederick Douglass High School


Baltimore, MD
United States

Thank you, Secretary [Arne] Duncan – and thank you all for being here.  It’s a pleasure to be at Frederick Douglass High School today.  And it’s a privilege to stand with so many committed public servants, hardworking educators, dedicated parents – and, especially, talented young students – as we discuss ways to open new avenues of opportunity for America’s young people, and take steps to ensure that our schools have the support they need to provide pathways to success rather than pipelines to the criminal justice system.

As Secretary Duncan said, this shared goal cannot be met in the absence of close engagement with leaders like all of you – and high expectations for each and every one of our students.  But continued progress also depends on our collective ability to keep young people on the right track, in the classroom, and out of the criminal justice system – by fostering a learning environment that is both safe and supportive.

As it stands, far too many students across the country are diverted from the path to success by unnecessarily harsh discipline policies and practices that exclude them from school for minor infractions.  During critical years that are proven to impact a student’s later chances for success, alarming numbers of young people are suspended, expelled, or even arrested for relatively minor transgressions like school uniform violations, schoolyard fights, or showing “disrespect” by laughing in class.

Too often, so-called “zero-tolerance” policies – however well-intentioned – make students feel unwelcome in their own schools.  They disrupt the learning process.   And they can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people – increasing their likelihood of future contact with juvenile and criminal justice systems.

We’ve seen time and again that school districts with high out-of-school suspension rates also tend to have lower-than-average graduation rates.  We’ve seen that severe discipline policies often increase the numbers of suspensions and expulsions without effectively making schools safer or creating better learning environments.  And we’ve seen that the impacts of exclusionary policies are not felt equally in every segment of the population – with students of color and those with disabilities often receiving different and more severe punishments than their peers.

As President Obama has said, we can – and we must – do much better.  As the father of three teenagers, and as our nation’s Attorney General, I have always regarded protecting the safety and potential of our young people as both a personal and professional priority.  I recognize, as you do, that our country’s future will be defined, and its progress determined, by the doors we open and the support we offer to our youngest citizens.  We must never waver in our determination to keep our schools safe and hold students to a high standard of accountability whenever their conduct disrupts the learning process or harms those around them.  Effective discipline is, and always will be, a necessity.  But a routine school discipline infraction should land a student in a principal’s office – not in a police precinct.  And that’s why I am proud to join Secretary Duncan for today’s important announcement.

As the Secretary indicated, the guidance we unveil this morning is the result of close and longstanding cooperation between the Departments of Justice and Education, as well as extensive research and collaboration with school leaders, educators, and parents.  This guidance will assist school districts – and public elementary and secondary school teachers and administrators – in meeting their obligations under federal law to develop and implement disciplinary policies without discrimination.  It will provide useful information for school resource officers, recommendations for evidence-based alternatives to exclusionary discipline, and fresh approaches for monitoring and addressing racial and other disparities.  Even more critically, it will offer new tools for educators, policymakers, and parents to promote fair and effective practices that make schools not only safer, but more supportive and inclusive.

As we carry these efforts into the future, this new guidance will enable us to build on the unprecedented steps that this Administration has already made possible when it comes to reforming counterproductive disciplinary policies – and disrupting the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”  Together, over the last five years, the Departments of Justice and Education have worked closely with school districts throughout America to fulfill their obligations under key federal laws – including Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the landmark Equal Educational Opportunities Act – to administer discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability, or language status.  And Secretary Duncan and I came together in 2011 to launch the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which is helping to foster dialogue and build consensus among essential stakeholders at every level – bolstering our ability to measure progress, to assess the effectiveness of alternative policies, and to share best practices from coast to coast.

As a result of these and other efforts, there’s no question that we can all be proud of what’s been achieved in recent years.  The guidance we announce this morning represents another clear and meaningful step in the right direction.  But it’s just as clear that we cannot yet be satisfied – and none of us can afford to become complacent.  The work that remains before us is as challenging today as it ever has been.  And much remains to be done if we hope to continue building on the legacy of progress and achievement that’s been entrusted to each of us.

After all, it was fifty years ago today that President Lyndon B. Johnson used his very first State of the Union address to declare a “war on poverty,” reminding his fellow citizens that poverty’s roots lie not in a lack of money or employment, but “. . . in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up [our] children.”  In the decades since then, our nation has made remarkable strides.  From the monumental Civil Rights Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, and other sweeping reforms – generations of policymakers and ordinary citizens have come together to empower millions of Americans to pursue their dreams.

As President Obama declared in his own first State of the Union address – and as he reiterated at a speech in Washington just last month – this work must continue to drive our steps forward, so we can “make sure that every striving, hardworking, optimistic kid in America has the same incredible chance that this country gave [us].”  This is why, at every level of the Obama Administration – from “Race to the Top,” to our restored and renewed emphasis on civil rights protections, to this important new guidance – we’re prioritizing our work to strengthen and expand opportunity and access for everyone in this country.  And as we move ahead, I’m confident that – with the continued commitment of teachers and administrators across the United States; with the dedication of parents who ask the best of their children; with the passion of students who dare to aim high and work hard; and with the understanding, expertise, and advocacy of leaders like all of you – we will succeed in improving our schools.  We will ensure and extend the promise of equality under the law.  And we will empower America’s young people to build the better, brighter, and more prosperous futures that every one of them deserves.

I am proud to count you as partners and colleagues in advancing this vital work.  I thank you for everything you do.  And I look forward to all that we’ll achieve together in the months and years to come.

Read Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Release of the Joint DOJ-ED School Discipline Guidance Package:

Updated August 18, 2015