For a number of years, the ACLU has worked to raise awareness of the "school to prison pipeline"--a product of over-policing of public schools, zero-tolerance policies directed at young people, and harsh punishments. The cumulative effect of these policies is a situation where many students--particularly in poorer areas of the country--travelled a seamless path from high school to the criminal justice system. Four years ago, the ACLU published a report on the problems created by the largely unregulated, unsupervised work of school resource officers. The report set out a number of suggestions designed to guide the work of these police officers who are stationed at schools and who take part in school discipline. Fighting against the "school to prison pipeline" has been one of the highest priorities of the ACLU, both at the national level and in the affiliates. Students have rights, and we all have an interest is keeping young people out of the criminal justice system.
This week, that effort received a huge boost from United States Department of Education and Department of Justice. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new set of federal guidelines on school discipline. These guidelines urge schools to move away from overly punitive forms of punishment, and to be conscious of the often racially-biased ways that school discipline has been meted out. Instead of suspensions, expulsions, and arrest--which are often the norm in many schools--the government is urging schools to explore more constructive approaches to discipline.
The ACLU could not be more pleased. In comments on the guidelines, the ACLU called their issuance, "a victory for all who care about creating environments where students can thrive." ACLU affiliates have already worked with schools across the country on racial bias in school discipline, and in promoting alternatives to expulsion and arrest for conduct by students. Here in Maine, we worked to draft and pass anti-bullying legislation that directs schools to consider "alternative discipline" responses to bullying (such as mediation, reflective exercises, anger management training, and restorative justice approaches). Our criminal justice system, including our juvenile justice system, is quite full already, and any policy approach the reduces the likelihood of a young person ending up with a criminal record is better for everyone.