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Oakland Comes to Grips with Racial Bias in School Discipline

October 16, 2012

Lindsey Needham

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The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) set the standard for school systems across the country when it recently opted to restructure its disciplinary policies to address racial bias. School board members voted unanimously for a resolution that replaces an over reliance on out-of-school suspensions with alternative disciplinary practices. Recent studies had concluded that African American boys in Oakland were being suspended six times the rate of white boys, and the school district had been under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights before passing the resolution.

Racial disparities in school discipline, however, are hardly unique to Oakland. Alarmingly high student arrests have been discovered in New York City schools, where 95% of students detained are black or Latino. In Mississippi, Department of Justice officials recently identified a county that incarcerates African American and special needs children for school infractions at unacceptably high rates. In fact, statistics reveal that African American students nationwide are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

Education experts characterize this disturbing national trend as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” where students are pushed out of school through disciplinary action and into juvenile and criminal justice systems. Zero-tolerance policies, which frequently mandate severe punitive measures for trivial school code violations, are largely to blame for this education crisis.

The Lawyers’ Committee applauds OUSD for turning the page on ineffective disciplinary policies and — more importantly — taking the lead to implement restorative justice and positive behavior intervention practices. Both of these alternative disciplinary strategies have proven successful at reducing suspensions, expulsions, and arrests at school. 

Restorative justice is an alternative disciplinary approach that turns incidents that might otherwise result in punishment into opportunities for students to recognize the impact of their behavior, understand their obligation to take responsibility for their actions, and take steps towards making things right. School systems implementing restorative justice practices often use peer mediation and peer juries as methods to resolve conflict. Denver Public Schools’ use of restorative justice practices has resulted in a 40% reduction in out-of-school suspensions.

Positive behavior intervention uses a school-wide framework to prevent challenging behavior. Under this model, teachers are trained to understand the motivation for a student’s misbehavior, look for ways to change incentives, and reinforce positive behavior. Two years after Los Angeles Unified School District put this policy into effect, overall suspension rates dropped by 20%.

As part of the voluntary agreement with the Department of Education, OUSD will collect and submit data on the implementation of new disciplinary practices. We urge school districts around the country to monitor Oakland’s progress and consider similar changes to their system-wide disciplinary policies.

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