The wide-ranging series of guidelines issued Wednesday in essence tells schools that they must adhere to the principle of fairness and equity in student discipline or face strong action if they don't. The American Civil Liberties Union called the recommendations "ground-breaking."
"A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal's office, not in a police precinct," Attorney General Eric Holder said.
Holder said the problem often stems from well intentioned "zero-tolerance" policies that too often inject the criminal justice system into the resolution of problems. Zero-tolerance policies, a tool that became popular in the 1990s, often spell out uniform and swift punishment for offenses such as truancy, smoking or carrying a weapon. Violators can lose classroom time or become saddled with a criminal record.
Police have become a more common presence in American schools since the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999.
The administration said research suggests the racial disparities in how students are disciplined are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.
"In our investigations, we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students," the Justice and Education departments said in a letter to school districts. "In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem."
Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, acknowledged that students of color were being suspended and expelled in disproportionate numbers.
In American schools, black students without disabilities were more than three times as likely as whites to be expelled or suspended, according to government civil rights data collection from 2011-2012. Although black students made up 15 percent of students in the data collection, they made up more than a third of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and more than a third of students expelled.
More than half of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black, according to the data.
Domenech said his organization will work to educate members about the recommendations. "Superintendents recognize that out-of-school suspension is outdated and not in line with 21st-century education," he said.
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