Arne Duncan Speaks Out About School Discipline

At a press conference today in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the following statement about the classroom arrest at Richland County’s Spring Valley High School in South Carolina:

[Related: Illinois Gov. Signs Groundbreaking Law Disrupting School-to-Prison Pipeline]

“Before I take your questions, I want to make a quick statement about an important conversation that’s happening across America right now. This city was the site of so many important moments in the struggle for civil rights. But this week, we’ve been forced to again confront how far we still have left to go in the struggle for true equality. There’s an important discussion taking place in America this week about school discipline, the role of law enforcement in our schools, and the well-being of our nation’s children. Our partners at the Department of Justice have opened an investigation into what happened recently in South Carolina, so I’m not going to be able to comment on the specifics there.”

“But I do want to talk about what happens in schools across America every single day, even when it’s not captured on video. Schools must be safe havens. They must be filled with compassion and love. But it’s clear that as a nation, we are severely underestimating the traumatic impact of our children being subject to or even just seeing or witnessing unnecessary physical force and arrests in our schools and classrooms. If we want to maintain the trust of parents and communities in our schools, we must start by treating our children with respect and human dignity.”

“As I’ve said repeatedly, every year, every single year, our K-12 schools suspend roughly three and a half million students, and refer a quarter of a million children to the police for arrest. If our collective goal is to end the school-to-prison pipeline, that is simply unacceptable. These aren’t just somehow numbers, or statistics–they’re our children. And it should come as no surprise that these children being suspended and arrested are disproportionately students of color and students with disabilities. We can no longer have this conversation, let alone fix the problem, if we’re unwilling to talk about race.”

“Schools must be productive places for teaching and learning, but we also have to rethink how we create safe and supportive learning environments for all our students, and for the adults in school, the staff. Our schools must be a pathway to opportunity, not a pipeline to prison. And no student should feel unsafe or fearful of being harmed while in school, in class.”

“To do better, we also have to take a hard look at ourselves, and our history, and the implicit biases that we all carry. The ugly truth–the harsh reality–is that still today in 2015, some children are far more likely to face harsh discipline than others, simply because of their zip code or the color of their skin. That’s unacceptable and not a reality anybody should be willing to live with.”