Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Administrator [Bob] Listenbee, for that kind introduction and for your extraordinary leadership of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. I want to express my gratitude to President Obama and the White House staff for making this convening possible. I want to recognize Secretary [Arne] Duncan and the Department of Education for their steadfast partnership in advancing this vital work. And I want to thank each of you for the commitment you have made to keeping students in their classrooms and out of the criminal justice system and for the strides you are making in your schools and communities to promote fair, effective discipline practices. It is a pleasure to be here with you today and a privilege to join so many outstanding educators, dedicated state and local officials and passionate stakeholders in the work that we share.
I could not be more proud to participate in this important event – because it speaks to one of the main priorities of the Department of Justice: making sure that all of our nation’s young people have a real opportunity to grow and to thrive, no matter who they are, what they look like or where they’re from. That’s a commitment that we’ve made and delivered on throughout the last six years of the Obama Administration and that we continue to fulfill today. Through President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, we’re bringing together public and private organizations to address opportunity gaps that prevent too many of our young people from realizing their potential. Through our National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, we are helping young people escape the trap of youth and gang violence and giving them a chance to succeed. We are also working in cities across America, through the department’s Defending Childhood Initiative, to make sure our children’s futures are defined by their determination, unique skills and personal goals – and not limited by the circumstances of their birth. And through meetings like this one and a range of actions around the country, we are fighting to give all of our young people the safe and nurturing educational environments that they need discover their potential, recognize their worth and expand their horizons.
That is a critical effort and the stakes are high. As you know, today, far too many young people – disproportionately children of color and children with disabilities – are suspended, expelled or even arrested as a result of unnecessarily harsh school discipline policies and practices that essentially criminalize minor infractions. Far too many young people spend precious time during their formative years excluded from social interactions, denied learning opportunities and deprived of the kind of encouragement and understanding that they need to progress and improve. And far too often, zero-tolerance school discipline policies serve as a tripwire that sends young people stumbling into a vicious cycle of criminality and incarceration.
I am proud to say that the Department of Justice is determined to end this unjust status quo. As you have heard today from outstanding leaders like Bob Listenbee and like Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, we are taking a range of actions to open avenues of opportunity to young people and to ensure that students receive the help and support that they need. Under the leadership of my predecessor, Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department joined with the Department of Education in 2011 to launch the Supportive School Discipline Initiative in order to foster dialogue and build consensus about disciplinary policies and interventions that have been proven to work. Last year, we unveiled a School Discipline Guidance resource to assist school districts, teachers and administrators as they develop disciplinary policies that are fair for every child – making this the first administration to provide guidance for all of you on discrimination in school discipline. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is partnering with the Department of Education and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to improve school climates, to respond early and appropriately to student mental health and behavioral needs and to avoid referring students to law enforcement and juvenile justice as a disciplinary response. And our Civil Rights Division is working aggressively to address disparities in the administration of school discipline; to ensure that school discipline does not result in unnecessary segregation or exclusion; and to curtail our overreliance on juvenile justice and incarceration.
Earlier today, you heard about a landmark agreement that the Civil Rights Division reached with the school district in Meridian, Mississippi, which is already reducing exclusionary discipline and fostering a more positive climate in the Meridian schools. Building from that agreement, just last month, the Civil Rights Division also reached a settlement agreement with the city of Meridian, Mississippi, and the state of Mississippi to prevent unconstitutional youth arrests and probation practices. The agreement will ensure that students referred to law enforcement are not arrested without probable cause; that the city’s police department doesn’t arrest students for conduct that should be appropriately addressed as school discipline; and that the state’s probation practices safeguard young people’s rights against self-incrimination and protect students from being incarcerated based on minor violations and technicalities.
These are just a few examples of the important – and in some cases, groundbreaking – work that the Department of Justice is doing as part of an administration-wide commitment to this issue. In the days ahead, we intend to build on these efforts and extend their reach and I am optimistic and excited about all that we can achieve. But I also recognize that we have much more work to do – and that your help in schools across the country will be essential to achieving our goals. That is why meetings like this one are so vital – because they allow us to come together in order to better understand the challenges we face; to discuss solutions and opportunities for advancement; to identify priorities and plan next steps; and to share best practices so that every community can succeed.
The way we approach these issues will answer fundamental questions about this nation –about who we are and who we aspire to be as a people. As President Obama has said many times before, it is that fundamental understanding – I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. We have not just an opportunity, but an obligation, to come together in support of our most vulnerable citizens. That’s why we need to make clear to the youth of this nation – not only with our words today, but with our actions in the days to come – that we value them; that we care about them; that we will stand with them; and that America is their country, too. That’s what this administration believes. That’s what this country believes. And that is what I believe.
As you return to your schools and communities – as you implement new ideas and press forward with important reforms – I want you to remember that you have not only my confidence and my gratitude, but my full and unwavering support. Thank you once again for your contributions to this crucial mission and for your outstanding work in the service of this nation. I could not be more optimistic, more hopeful and more confident about all that you will accomplish and where you will lead us, in the years ahead.
It is now my privilege to introduce an outstanding public servant for this country and a dedicated ally in this cause – Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council, Cecilia Muñoz.