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Education law a tool for ending school-to-prison pipeline

President Obama and Congress recently took an important step toward closing the achievement gap in our nation’s schools and stemming the tide of students needlessly pushed out of class and into the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by the president last week, didn’t just replace the No Child Left Behind law, it encourages school districts to take a closer look at their discipline practices. This is an important development because suspensions and expulsions not only push children out of the classroom, they can be a student’s first step toward the juvenile justice system.

This law recognizes that danger.

It requires school districts to show how they are taking steps to curb discipline practices that remove students from the classroom. This can include identifying schools with high rates of discipline. School districts are also being asked to adopt discipline practices backed by evidence and keep kids in school – welcome news after districts have spent many years touting harsh, zero-tolerance policies.

What’s more, a district’s discipline policy should be part of a “long-term goal of prison reduction through opportunities, mentoring, intervention, support and other education services,” according to the act. This approach is long overdue. At the Southern Poverty Law Center, we have witnessed how too many school districts needlessly push out students, especially students of color and those with disabilities.

In Alabama’s Mobile County Public Schools, suspensions were often meted out for minor misbehavior, such as uniform violations or excessive talking. One high school principal suspended more than 90 students for uniform violations in 2013. A settlement agreement stemming from an SPLC lawsuit now ensures that students won’t be pushed out of school for such minor offenses.

In Florida’s Flagler County Public Schools, African-American students accounted for 31 percent of all out-of-school suspensions during the 2010-11 school year – even though they were only 16 percent of the student population. A settlement agreement has since been reached in an SPLC civil rights complaint against the district.

And in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, African-American students have been disproportionately referred to alternative school, where they often languish for months – or even years – before returning to regular classes. These students are often referred to alternative schools for minor misconduct, such as disrespectful behavior, use of profanity, disrupting class and horseplay. The SPLC has filed federal discrimination complaints against the district.

The Every Student Succeeds Act provides an important tool to dismantle this school-to-prison pipeline. But one piece of legislation won’t eradicate inequality in all school districts. And there are legitimate concerns that this act doesn’t provide federal authorities with the tools they need to hold school districts accountable.

Clearly, there is still much work ahead.

That’s why the Southern Poverty Law Center remains dedicated to ending school policies that derail young lives and will take legal action to stem discrimination when necessary. It’s why communities must hold their school officials accountable. And it’s why we must continue to demand our schools ensure equality, fairness and opportunity for all children.