The following post originally appeared on Anthropology News. It was written by Lance Arney and Marilyn Williams. Its original title is, “Demanding Zero Tolerance for Florida’s School-to-Prison Pipeline.”

By: Lance Arney and Marilyn Williams

Fifty years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, the Civil Rights offices of the US Department of Education (DOE) and Department of Justice (DOJ) jointly issued detailed guidance on nondiscriminatory administration of discipline in public schools, declaring, “racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem” (2014:4). The real consequences of this very real problem have already negatively impacted the lives of countless black children, on whom “zero tolerance” school discipline policies have been exercised disproportionately and more severely than on white children.

The state of Florida has some of the harshest zero tolerance policies in the country, and therefore some of the most egregious school-related civil rights violations of black youth. This essay will explore how the DOE and DOJ’s guidance on “Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline” empowered grassroots activists, civil rights advocacy organizations, and engaged anthropologists in Florida to collaborate in community action to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and decrease the unjust criminalization of black youth.

School-to-Prison Pipeline Is a Civil Rights Issue

Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits racial/ethnic discrimination in public schools and Title VI prohibits racial/ethnic discrimination by recipients of Federal financial assistance. With regard to schools, Title VI is enforced by the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), whose mission is to ensure equal access to education. In March 2014, the OCR released the results of a comprehensive survey of every public school in the nation—the first such survey since 2000—and made the data available on its website ( The OCR has been responsible for Civil Rights Data Collection since 1968, but it was not until the Obama administration that it began collecting civil rights data on school discipline, specifically corporal punishment, suspension, expulsion, restraint, seclusion, zero tolerance policies, referrals to law enforcement, and school-related arrests. What these data (2011–12 school year) show, to quote Attorney General Eric Holder, is that “racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool” (

Significantly, the guidance on Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline had already been published in January 2014, prior to the release of the 2011–12 data in March. As Holder commented, “This Administration is moving aggressively to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in order to ensure that all of our young people have equal educational opportunities” ( The purpose of the guidance is to “assist public elementary and secondary schools in meeting their obligations under Federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin” (2014: 1). It also reminds schools that not only will the education and justice departments initiate investigations based on complaints the departments receive about racial discrimination in student discipline, but that they will be proactive in initiating investigations based on public reports and as part of their compliance monitoring.

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