Today, the DC Council took a historic step towards cutting off the “school to prison pipeline,” by passing legislation to eliminate most school suspensions. This end to a racially biased approach to discipline is to be applauded. It affirms that schools should be a place for students to learn and sends a powerful message that we cannot punish young people because of the challenges they face inside or outside of the classroom.
Unfortunately, this step forward was almost walked back by the current chair, Phil Mendelson. Rather than fully embrace this common sense approach to stopping a racially biased approach to discipline, the Chair tried to water down the bill and allow this unfair practice to continue.
It is so shameful that the current Chair of the Council led an effort to water down its key provisions. The amendments he introduced -- that the rest of the Council rightly rejected -- would have allowed schools to suspend a child for “willful defiance,” a subjective term that would permit bias against children of color to continue. Allowing a middle school child to be suspended for talking back defeats the purpose of this important reform.
The rest of the Council deserves credit for resisting this wrong-headed move from their current leader. Like his effort to cut the estate tax for DC’s richest families, repeal and replace paid family leave, roll back tenant rights or his lack of transparency around the budget, Mendelson’s actions show that he is trying to hold the District back from policies that put working families first.
There is overwhelming evidence that school discipline is applied unfairly and more harshly to students of color than to white students. This includes the recent report showing that Black girls in DC schools are more likely than others to be called out for school dress code violations. It includes national findings that racial disparities in discipline are actually widening. We know that other students facing challenges and pressure at school, including children with disabilities and LGBTQ students, are prone to be disciplined.
As Council Chair, I will boldly embrace policies to address racial and ethnic inequities like school discipline bias.
To make racial equity a goal across DC government and all policy and budget decisions, my policy platform calls for requiring all major pieces of legislation to undergo a racial equity impact analysis. This way, we can assess and implement the best policies to reduce DC’s wide racial and ethnic inequities.
We must not retreat from bold steps needed to make DC a fairer and stronger city. The Council Chair’s defense of school suspensions is a shameful disappointment.
- Ed Lazere