Key Policy Letters from the Education Secretary and Deputy Secretary
January 8, 2014
Archived Information

en español [MS Word, 70.5 KB]

January 8, 2014

Dear Colleague:

Our goal of preparing all students for college, careers, and civic life cannot be met without first creating safe schools where effective teaching and learning can take place. Simply put, no school can be a great school—and ultimately prepare all students for success—if it is not first a safe school.

Creating and maintaining such schools is both challenging and complex. Even though national rates of school violence have decreased overall, [  1  ] too many schools are still struggling to create the nurturing, positive, and safe environments that we know are needed to boost student achievement and success.

No student or adult should feel unsafe or unable to focus in school, yet this is too often a reality. Simply relying on suspensions and expulsions, however, is not the answer to creating a safe and productive school environment. Unfortunately, a significant number of students are removed from class each year—even for minor infractions of school rules—due to exclusionary discipline practices, which disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities. For example,

  • Nationwide, data collected by our Office for Civil Rights show that youths of color and youths with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspensions and expulsions. For example, data show that African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although students who receive special education services represent 12% of students in the country, they make up 19% of students suspended in school, 20% of students receiving out-of-school suspension once, 25% of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions, 19% of students expelled, 23% of students referred to law enforcement, and 23% of students receiving a school-related arrest. [  2  ]
  • In Texas, a groundbreaking longitudinal study of nearly 1 million students found that nearly six in 10 public school students studied were suspended or expelled at least once over a six-year period during their 7th to 12th-grade years; 15 percent of those students were disciplined 11 or more separate times. [  3  ]
  • One study found that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect. [  4  ]

The widespread overuse of suspensions and expulsions has tremendous costs. Students who are suspended or expelled from school may be unsupervised during daytime hours and cannot benefit from great teaching, positive peer interactions, and adult mentorship offered in class and in school. Suspending students also often fails to help them develop the skills and strategies they need to improve their behavior and avoid future problems. Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again, repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.

When carried out in connection with zero-tolerance policies, such practices can erode trust between students and school staff, and undermine efforts to create the positive school climates needed to engage students in a well-rounded and rigorous curriculum. In fact, research indicates an association between higher suspension rates and lower schoolwide academic achievement and standardized test scores. Schools and taxpayers also bear the steep direct and indirect costs from the associated grade retention and elevated school dropout rates.

These costs are too high. I encourage America's educators to proactively redesign discipline policies and practices to more effectively foster supportive and safe school climates. That is why today I am calling on state, district, and school leaders to reexamine school discipline in light of three guiding principles that are grounded in our work with a wide variety of high-achieving and safe schools, emerging research, and consultation with experts in the field.

First, take deliberate steps to create the positive school climates that can help prevent and change inappropriate behaviors. Such steps include training staff, engaging families and community partners, and deploying resources to help students develop the social, emotional, and conflict resolution skills needed to avoid and de-escalate problems. Targeting student supports also helps students address the underlying causes of misbehavior, such as trauma, substance abuse, and mental health issues.

Second, ensure that clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences are in place to prevent and address misbehavior. By holding students accountable for their actions in developmentally appropriate ways, students learn responsibility, respect, and the bounds of acceptable behavior in our schools and society. This also means relying on suspension and expulsion only as a last resort and for appropriately serious infractions, and equipping staff with alternative strategies to address problem behaviors while keeping all students engaged in instruction to the greatest extent possible.

Finally, schools must understand their civil rights obligations and strive to ensure fairness and equity for all students by continuously evaluating the impact of their discipline policies and practices on all students using data and analysis.

Emerging reforms at the state and district levels reflect these approaches as well. States are revising discipline laws to enhance local discretion, curtail zero-tolerance requirements, and encourage the development of alternative disciplinary approaches such as restorative justice. At the district level, reforms have included adding social and emotional learning to curricula, implementing positive behavioral intervention and support frameworks, building and sustaining community partnerships, replacing suspension rooms with learning centers, and assembling intervention teams to help struggling students and their families.

To help other states and districts build on these examples of promising practices and reforms, I am pleased to announce the release of a resource package that can assist them, as well as schools, in crafting local solutions to enhance school safety and improve school discipline. The package includes the following:

  • Dear Colleague guidance letter, prepared with our partners at the U.S. Department of Justice, describing how schools can meet their obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin;
  • "Guiding Principles" document, which draws from emerging research and best practices to describe three key principles and related action steps that can help guide state- and locally controlled efforts to improve school climate and school discipline;
  • Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources, which indexes the extensive federal technical assistance and other resources on school discipline and climate available to schools and districts;
  • The online Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations, which catalogues the laws and regulations related to school discipline in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, and compares laws across states and jurisdictions; and
  • Overview of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which outlines recent federal efforts on these issues.

It is difficult work to create schools that are safe and free of violence, where teachers can concentrate on teaching and, to the greatest extent possible, all students are in class and focused on learning. But it is possible. It is also essential to our nation's efforts to expand and accelerate student success and achievement. I hope you find these guidance resources helpful, and I thank you for all that you do every day to educate America's youths.

  Arne Duncan


[ 1. ] Robers, S., Kemp, J., and Truman, J. (2013). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2012 (NCES 2013-036/NCJ 241446). National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC. Available at [ Return to text ]

[ 2. ] Statistics are drawn from unpublished (as of January 8, 2014) data collected by the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) for the 2011-12 school year. Additional information and publicly available data from the CRDC can be found at [ Return to text ]

[ 3. ] Fabelo, T., Thompson, M. D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M. P. III, and Booth E. A. (2011). Breaking Schools' Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students' Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center; Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University. Available at [ Return to text ]

[ 4. ] Boccanfuso, C. and Kuhfeld M. (2011). Multiple Responses, Promising Results: Evidence-Based, Nonpunitive Alternatives to Zero Tolerance (Publication #2011-09). Washington, DC: Child Trends, citing Skiba, R. (2000). Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice. Bloomington, IN: Education Policy Center Indiana University. [ Return to text ]

Last Modified: 02/16/2017