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Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels Speaks at the Meridian Pen and Pad


Washington, DC
United States

Good morning. Thank you all for joining us for this important conversation about the Justice Department’s efforts to work with school districts to ensure that schools are safe and inclusive environments for all students.

My name is Jocelyn Samuels, and I am the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division. Joining me here today are Anurima Bhargava, Chief of the Educational Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights Division; Ryan Wilson and Zoe Savitsky, Trial Attorneys in the Educational Opportunities Section; and Gabriel Gonzalez-Kriesberg, Paralegal in the Educational Opportunities Section.

The foundations of the American dream are rooted in education, and the belief that any child can succeed with the right tools and the right opportunities. As the Supreme Court recognized in Brown v. Board of Education, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” Yet today, across the country, students are being pulled off the path to success by harsh discipline policies that are excluding students from school for minor disciplinary infractions. Students are being suspended, expelled, or arrested for school uniform violations, talking back to a teacher, or showing “disrespect” by laughing in class.

Such harsh and excessive discipline practices, not only make students feel unwelcome in their own schools and disrupt their academic experience, but have significant negative effects on their long-term well-being. Students who have been suspended are at greater risk of educational failure and dropping out of school, and students who are suspended or expelled also have an increased likelihood of being involved in the juvenile justice system.

Schools that implement these kinds of harsh discipline policies often assume that they will make schools safer. Yet the research shows that these policies not only increase the number of suspensions and expulsions, largely for minor offenses, but they don’t make schools any safer for the students who attend them.

Moreover, the impact of exclusionary discipline policies is not felt equally. Students of color are receiving different and more severe punishments than white students for the same or similar infractions. Students should feel welcome at the front door, and should not be pushed out the back door of their schools because of their race, ethnicity, disability, language status, sex, religion or any other discriminatory basis.

The Department of Justice, together with the Meridian Public School District and private plaintiffs, filed a proposed Consent Decree this morning that addresses claims of racial discrimination in student discipline in district schools. As part of efforts to enforce a longstanding school desegregation order, the department investigated complaints that the District had implemented a harsh and punitive student discipline policy that resulted in the disproportionate suspension, expulsion, and school-based arrest of black students in Meridian schools. These kinds of disparities persisted even when the students were at the same school, were of similar ages, and had similar disciplinary histories. Across the district, students felt unsafe and unwelcome. Many lost their will to participate and to learn.

The Consent Decree follows an extensive multiyear investigation by the Department, which included interviews of administrators, staff, parents and students; onsite reviews of all district schools, meetings attended by hundreds of community members; formal depositions, and review of over 45,000 pages of documents and data.

The Consent Decree is a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform that will build on the District’s existing efforts to improve school climate and create an environment where all students feel safe and welcome in school. A safe school is a school where administrators and staff have the tools, training and support to address conflict and challenges as they arise. A safe school is a school where law enforcement officers can focus on protecting students from serious threats, rather than everyday minor misbehaviors.

Under the proposed Consent Decree the District will, among other things:

·          Change their policies so that they limit exclusionary discipline such as suspension, alternative placement, and expulsion, and prohibit exclusionary discipline for minor misbehavior;

·          Amend their practices to prohibit school officials from involving law enforcement officers to respond to behavior that can be safely and appropriately handled under school disciplinary procedures;

·          Ensure that school law enforcement officers get training on bias-free policing, child and adolescent development, mentoring, and working with school administrators;

·          Revise their alternative school policies to create clear entry and exit criteria and provide appropriate supports to speed students’ transitions back to their home schools;

·          Scale up their use of a behavior and discipline management system known as positive behavior intervention and supports (“PBIS”) at all schools; and

·          Train teachers and administrators to use developmentally appropriate tiered prevention and intervention strategies before removing students from instruction.

We commend the District for taking this huge step forward to transform and create a supportive learning environment for its students. We look forward to continuing to work with the District to implement the Consent Decree over the next four years. Indeed, it is our hope that Meridian will be a lodestar for other school districts seeking to reform their discipline practices in order to engage, not exclude, this generation - and future generations - of schoolchildren

The Department is engaged in efforts across the country to break down barriers to opportunity for America’s schoolchildren, and to ensure that school is a road to success, not a pipeline to prison. We are working with school districts to fulfill their obligations under Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, to administer discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability, or language status. As one example, we have investigated school districts to ensure that the district was not administering discipline in a manner that prevented English learner students from overcoming language barriers or excluding them from the classroom or school based on their language status. We will continue to seek opportunities to work with school districts across the country to provide safe, supportive, and inclusive school environments.

Updated September 17, 2014