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The U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, this week issued a Dear Colleague Letter addressing the nondiscriminatory  administration of student discipline.  While the departments recognize the need to maintain safe and orderly educational environments within our schools, research has shown that students of certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be disciplined more than their peers.  Federal law prohibits public school districts from discriminating in the administration of student discipline based on certain personal characteristics, such as race, color, and national origin.  The guidance is intended to help public elementary and secondary schools administer student discipline in a manner that does not discriminate on the basis of race.  The analytical framework set out in the guidance can also be applied to discrimination on other prohibited grounds, such as disability, religion, and sex.

According to the Letter, discriminatory discipline can be shown when (1) similarly-situated students of different races are disciplined differently for the same offense; (2) districts strictly enforce a discipline policy against members of one racial group, while overlooking the same violations committed by members of another racial group; (3) districts intentionally target a racial group for “invidious reasons,” i.e., adopting a dress code policy that targets a style of clothing that students of a particular race are likely to wear; and (4)  a teacher or administrator acts with racially discriminatory motives, i.e., the educator utters a racial slur when disciplining a student.  Districts can also violate federal law when they implement facially-neutral policies that were not adopted with the intent to discriminate, but nevertheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race.  These “disparate impact” situations require an examination of whether a discipline policy resulted in an adverse impact on students of a particular race as compared with students of other races.

The Dear Colleague Letter offers a number of practical examples of situations in which the Departments might find discrimination in the administration of student discipline.  It also sets out what the DOE considers when investigating claims of discrimination.  The Letter stresses the importance of keeping good records on student discipline and the expectation that districts will cooperate fully in investigations conducted by the Office for Civil Rights.

An Appendix to the Dear Colleague Letter offers specific recommendations for school districts, administrators, teachers, and staff to assist in identifying, avoiding, and remedying discriminatory discipline based on race, color, and national origin.  The Departments also encourage school districts to contact them for technical assistance in applying this guidance to particular situations.  To review the entire Dear Colleague Letter, as well as Guiding Principles and other resources issued by the Departments, go to the Department of Education website at

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