Skip to main content

Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at White House Conference on Trauma-Informed Approaches in School to Support Girls of Color and Rethink Discipline


Washington, DC
United States

Good afternoon and thank you, Kalisha [Dessources], for that kind introduction and warm welcome.  I want to start by thanking my outstanding colleagues here today, including from the White House Council on Women and Girls and my team from the Civil Rights Division’s Educational Opportunities and Special Litigation Sections.  Each day, they work tirelessly to protect the rights of all children to learn in safe, inclusive and successful schools.  I want to acknowledge Secretary [of Education John B.] King [Jr.], who you’ll hear from shortly, and who – along with his colleagues at the Department of Education – provides extraordinary leadership and motivates us to work harder to ensure that our schools are serving all of our country’s children.  And I want to thank all of you – policymakers, researchers and advocates – for your steadfast commitment to supporting girls of color and protecting the rights of all children in our schools.

Throughout American society – from our schools, to our communities, to our juvenile justice facilities – we see how trauma can inflict a devastating impact on young women.  Whether due to bullying, sexual assault or discriminatory discipline, the trauma of injustices and indignities can reverberate for years.  Trauma can invade nearly every area of a girl’s life.  It can damage family relationships.  It can interfere with schoolwork and academic performance.  It can carry over into one’s social life by making the already awkward, challenging years of adolescence, all the more difficult.  And it can leave an emotional and psychological toll that may not be the most visible harm, but that can linger painfully for years.  A trauma-informed approach to addressing sexual harassment, school discipline and violence means developing strategies centered on caring for children with compassion, with support and with dignity.  It means addressing the root causes of traumatic events, for example, by preventing sexual assault or eradicating hostile learning environments.  And it also means recognizing how to sensitively and effectively support students who have experienced serious trauma and integrating a trauma-informed approach into our collective response.

In the Civil Rights Division, we’re advancing this mission to create safe, supportive and inclusive schools across the system.  And a core part of this work is combating discriminatory discipline and policing practices that too often fail to recognize or address behavior that is trauma-driven.  That lapse can fuel a pipeline to prison, where children – in particular children of color and children with disabilities who have already suffered the harm of trauma at school or at home – end up getting a sentence of incarceration rather than a diploma.  In Meridian, Mississippi, among a host of due process violations, we found students suspended from school – and some later incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility – for behavior as mundane as violating the dress code by wearing the wrong color socks or leaving their shirts untucked.  These actions disproportionately impacted children of color and children with disabilities.

In 2013, we reached an agreement to address discriminatory school discipline practices – including referrals to law enforcement – by the Meridian Public School District.  Under the consent decree, the school system agreed to provide all students, including girls of color, with positive behavior interventions and supports before removing them from school.  It agreed to establish clear guidelines for the limited circumstances that require law enforcement intervention.  And it agreed to ensure discipline measures are fair, equitable and consistent.  Last year, the court approved other agreements with the Meridian Police Department and the state youth probation agency.  The police and youth probation agreements similarly seek to avoid law enforcement involvement in alleged school-based misconduct whenever possible.  And when youth do encounter the juvenile justice system, the agreements ensure that their civil rights are respected.  Together, our agreements in Mississippi focus on appropriate responses and resolutions – rather than escalations – of school incidents.  We’re advancing these systemic reforms around the country, including in Palm Beach County, Florida, the nation’s 11th-largest school district.  A settlement agreement we reached there required the district to remove language barriers to students and prevent police involvement in routine disciplinary matters.  And we’re enforcing other agreements elsewhere, as well, from Tucson, Arizona, to St. Martin Parish, Louisiana.

We’re also working to combat the scourge of sexual assault and harassment that threatens the security of our schools as well as the foundation of a free, open and safe society.  In Allentown, Pennsylvania, where we reached a settlement to address allegations of sexual harassment in public schools, we found multiple cases of security guards harassing female students with inappropriate sexual comments and touching.  One security guard even tried to exchange inappropriate sexual contact for a promise not to report the girl’s disciplinary violation.  As a result, we required the school district to intervene promptly and effectively with strict guidelines and robust training for security guards.  The agreement also mandates that the school demonstrate a firm commitment to investigate any complaint of abuse or unlawful conduct.

Beyond the K-12 context, we’ve worked to address sexual assault at colleges and universities.  For example, we’ve crafted impactful settlement agreements with state and local jurisdictions in Missoula, Montana, where we’ve worked to promote a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach to sexual assault and domestic violence.  And to help law enforcement around the country advance that same approach, late last year, we released guidance on gender-bias policing.  The principles in our guidance include using trauma-informed interview tactics that encourage victim participation – replacing prejudiced statements that assume what happened with neutral, open-ended questions focused on learning what actually occurred.  The principles also advise police officers to adopt a victim-centered approach that addresses the medical, emotional and safety needs of victims, including referrals to appropriate services. 

In the juvenile justice system as well, we’re working to protect the rights of all youth to be free from violence and abuse.  In 2007, a Justice Department investigation uncovered juvenile correctional institutions in Ohio falling painfully short of their legal responsibilities to support the safety, health and educational needs of detained children.  A youth correctional facility in the city of Delaware, Ohio, held youth in seclusion for actions as mundane as refusing breakfast, cursing and talking in class.  In one instance, a youth endured 14 hours in seclusion for arguing and using a racial slur.  State experts also concluded that the Marion, Ohio, correctional facility’s mental health care failed to meet minimally-acceptable constitutional requirements.  These alarming, ineffective – and frequently unconstitutional – practices demanded widespread reform.  And over the past decade, we responded with a comprehensive approach.  After years of thorough investigation, effective litigation and independent monitoring, we agreed to terminate our consent decree with the state late last year after it successfully implemented transformative reforms in its juvenile correctional facilities.  These reforms spanned an array of areas and included eliminating the use of solitary confinement for punishment, ensuring individualized mental health care and dramatically reducing the population of incarcerated children.

In the Civil Rights Division, we’re particularly excited about this convening because we’re continually seeking to improve the ways that we incorporate trauma-informed practices into our settlement agreements.  As we assess the disparities and discriminatory practices that too often inflict trauma on our children, especially children of color, and leave them with a disadvantaged future, we need to continue responding with action, urgency and reform.  Because if we don’t address the harm, if we don’t deal with the trauma and if we don’t understand the pain that young people experience in school, where do we honestly expect them to end up later in their lives?  How do we expect them to succeed when the deck is stacked against them and the system offers little support to help?  These questions are not rhetorical.  They are real.  They are urgent.  And they are essential to building the future that all children deserve: a future of fairness, of safety and of inclusivity.  I know we all have a lot of work to do ahead, but I am glad to be here with all of you to talk about these tough issues and the path forward.  Thank you for your commitment to justice.  Thank you. 

Civil Rights
Updated September 19, 2016