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End Abusive, Discriminatory Discipline in Schools: Give All Students a Chance to Thrive

Alice Farmer,
Human Rights Program
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December 16, 2008

Minority students in schools across the U.S. are not getting a fair chance – in part because they are more likely to be subjected to abusive, degrading disciplinary tactics ranging from overpolicing to corporal punishment. Facing these and other obstacles, minority students are more likely to drop out of school and end up in the criminal justice system. The ACLU has been fighting this trend in the U.S.

The ACLU had the chance to raise this issue in an international setting: at the first United Nations Forum on Minority Issues, which opened yesterday in Geneva. The Forum was established by Independent Expert Gay McDougall (herself an American who has spent years fighting for racial justice) to examine conditions for minority students in schools across the world. This year, the Forum focuses on access to education for minority students, understanding that all children need a fair, equal start in life in order to thrive and contribute to their societies later.

Dennis Parker, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU and an established expert on minority access to education in the U.S., was asked to speak at the Forum. Dennis spoke yesterday about abusive discipline practices faced by minority students. For instance, some policies are outwardly discriminatory: African American, Latino, Native American and other students of color are subjected to different punishment than white students for engaging in the same behavior. Other policies appear race-neutral but are felt more harshly by minority students. For example, corporal punishment, still widely used in a number of states in the U.S., appears to be inflicted disproportionately against students of color, is counter to international legal standards and adversely affects the learning environment for all children whether or not they are recipients of the actual punishment.

International human rights standards such as those discussed at the Forum can help minority children in the U.S. get a fair chance at a decent education. Human rights law prohibits discrimination in all levels of education. What’s more, the right to dignity – one of the founding principles of human rights – protects children from abusive or discriminatory school discipline practices. U.S. schools – and indeed, all schools worldwide – should implement effective, positive discipline systems, so that children’s human rights are protected and so that every student can maximize his or her potential.

For more information, read the ACLU’s submission to the Forum on Minority Access to Education in the United States.

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