On Tuesday, March 3, Engaging Schools Executive Director Larry Dieringer played a key role in “From the Police Precinct to the Principal’s Office: The Challenges Facing School Districts One Year After the Release of Federal School Discipline Guidance,” a Congressional briefing that explored changes underway and challenges remaining more than a year after the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released guidance to help school districts develop discipline policies that keep students in school, eliminate racial disparities, and increase positive behavioral supports. The hearing was sponsored by Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), the ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Engaging Schools was also a sponsor, along with the Open Society Foundations, the Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Center for Community Alternatives.

With the support of the foundations, we’re able to offer a full video of the hearing, which runs one hour and 38 minutes, and a seven-minute version with hearing highlights. As well, please read on for an event summary.

Video highlights (7 minutes):

Full Hearing Video (1 hour 38 minutes):

Event Summary:

Allison Brown, Open Society Foundations program officer, welcomed the standing room-only audience and framed the briefing, noting, “We will be talking about school discipline and the racial disparities around school discipline and the ongoing conversation about this. We’ll talk about some local efforts, local successes in school discipline reform and school policy reform, and some of the challenges to implementation.”

Larry Dieringer, who served as the panel moderator, spoke next. Larry described Engaging Schools’ Schoolwide Discipline and Student Support work and observed, “During the last four years or so there has been a real sea change in the understanding among educators and many in the community about the extent and impact of exclusionary and disproportional discipline.”

Randy Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, spoke next. She noted that schools need to be safe, welcoming, and ordinary places for students to learn and for teachers to teach. The intersection of zero tolerance policies with the current high-stakes testing fixation has created toxic environments for kids, especially at-risk kids. Ms. Weingarten urged a paradigm shift away from a punitive, sanction-based system to a restorative, responsibility-based system, and also expressed faith in educators, stating that when we give teachers and schools tools and resources, these changes can be made.

Ms. Weingarten was followed by Sharon Contreras, superintendent of the Syracuse City School District (SCSD). She described the makeup of the SCSD: there are 21,000 students who speak 80 languages, 3,200 students are English Language Learners, and 76 percent of students receives free or reduced lunch subsidies. Students with special education needs make up 20 percent of the district’s population. Ms. Contreras shared SCSD’s urgent need to address egregious, disparate, and damaging rates of suspensions; the resulting collaboration with Engaging Schools to create a taskforce that developed the district’s Code of Conduct, Character, and Support; and the ongoing work to address implementation challenges.

Representative Bobby Scott spoke next, focusing on the politics of education and the issue of inequitable and punitive school discipline. Representative Scott spoke about the current House ESEA reauthorization bill and how, in his view it would turn the clock back. Drawing on his background on both the education and judiciary committees Representative Scott described the school-to-prison pipeline as a step-by-step process that can be interrupted along the way. He also touched on the ways that the policies that have been informing school discipline, such as suspending children for truancy, are nonsensical, and that the policies are often more about slogans that poll well (such as zero tolerance) than what makes the most sense for our schools. Representative Scott also spoke about the high prison rates in our country, especially for African American males, noting the need to proactively shift resources away from prisons and into early intervention and prevention.

Harry Lawson, Jr., ‎associate director of the Human and Civil Rights Department at the National Education Association, followed Representative Scott. He spoke about how there has been a rush to judgment and lack of collaboration in some schools around this issue, noting that though some districts have shifted codes of conduct away from extremely punitive measures, teachers didn’t consistently receive the professional development they need. Mr. Lawson added that there are also many issues around resource allocations, stating “It not just about additional money and additional people. It’s also about how those people and financial resources are actually being used.”

Angela Ciolfi, legal director of the JustChildren Program of Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center, then discussed the need for schools to take safety seriously when, at the same time, it’s challenging to aim for a 100 percent risk-free environment. Educators need to be able to distinguish between behavior that is developmentally natural and that which is truly intended to harm. Ms. Ciolfi observed that “threat assessment” offers a team-based way to look at behavior objectively and avoid knee-jerk reactions. Schools that have used it have lowered suspensions rates by 15 to 25 percent and closed or narrowed some of the racial disparities in long-term suspension rates.

Marsha Weissman, executive director of Syracuse’s Center for Community Alternatives spoke next, addressing the need to address implicit and explicit racism and stating, “It is uncomfortable to talk about…but if we deny that racism is a piece of the struggle and the ability to move this agenda forward, we’re going to get stuck.”

Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA, concluded the panel’s presentations, emphasizing that “there are tremendous economic impacts from out-of-school suspension.” Losen discussed relevant studies that have been done, including an influential study that calculated the increased drop-out rate from the increased use of out-of-school suspensions and found that, in Texas alone, in one cohort of students, more than $750 million over their lifetimes is lost due to not paying income taxes along with expenses from involvement in the juvenile justice and criminal justice system, welfare costs, etc.

The hearing concluded with a question-and-answer period with dialogue among the panel participants and audience members.

We are grateful to Representative Scott for hosting the hearing, to the Open Society Foundations and Atlantic Philanthropies for their support, and for the collaboration of all participants, who contributed powerful and diverse statements about the imperative to continue to develop and implement policies and practices that lead to more equitable, restorative, and supportive systems of school discipline.

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