Empty Classroom In Elementary School With Whiteboard And Desks.

Addressing School Discipline Disparities Through the Health Justice Framework

By Alexis Etow and Thalia González*

As an interdisciplinary legal scholar and public health attorney studying how education policies fit into the broader antiracist health equity agenda, health justice serves as both a conceptual framework for reform for legal academics and an accessible roadmap for change for policymakers and public health law professionals. Health justice functions to extend what has been previously accepted as within the health domain beyond traditional health care settings, systems, or laws. This broad applicability leaves ripe the opportunity to employ it to a broad range of health-impacting laws, policies, and systems that may not be designed or previously conceptualized as public health.

Consider, for example, school discipline and policing. Researchers and advocates have long-documented the disparate punishment and policing of Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) students compared to their white peers. For students with disabilities, especially those with intersectional identities, the risk factors and impacts of such policies are amplified. In the case of Black girls with disabilities, data shows that they experience the highest disparity for rates of referrals to law enforcement: six times more than white, non-disabled female students.

During COVID-19 and school closures, the disproportionality of these practices not only persist, but schools now employ new models of exclusion and police practices. This includes students remaining in Zoom waiting rooms during instructional time, resulting in unexcused absences, learning loss, and eventually truancy prosecution.

Despite evidence of the significant co-influential nature of health and education and specific health-harming effects of school discipline and policing — e.g., negative effect on students’ mental health, diminished health protective factors, disrupted educational attainment, threat to safety and wellbeing, and increased risk for justice system involvement — public health has been largely underemphasized in reform efforts and overlooked by the health law community. This is where a health justice approach is critical: it knits together and affirms that health and public health law professionals have key roles to play in education policy, law, and practice. It also places the health-harming effects of school discipline and policing squarely in the domain of public health law and prioritizes legal and policy responses with health equity at the forefront.

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Empty classroom.

School Discipline is a Public Health Crisis

By Thalia González, Alexis Etow, and Cesar De La Vega

Education is well-accepted as a key social determinant of health. It serves as a strong predictor of chronic disease, social and economic instability, incarceration, and even life expectancy. For example, by age 25, individuals with a high school degree can expect to live 11 to 15 years longer than those without one. Despite such evidence, education policies and practices have not been public health priorities. Too often, policies and practices in schools that create and compound health inequities are narrated and re-narrated as falling outside health law and policy. This is a missed opportunity for collective action to positively impact the future health pathways of children and communities.

In the wake of national protests against racialized police violence and COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, the time has come for the health community — from researchers, to public health organizations, to advocates, to health care professionals — to move from simply affirming that racism is a public health crisis, to actively exposing how structural discrimination in education has fueled disparities and deepened the persistence of health inequities.

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Back view of a little boy wearing a backpack walking to school

Zeroing In on “Zero Tolerance” School Discipline Laws

By Alexandra Hess

Exclusionary school discipline (ESD) policies, also known as Zero Tolerance policies, enforce disciplinary measures like suspension, expulsion, or law enforcement referral to address particular student behaviors.

Though it began as part of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandated one-year expulsion for possessing a firearm at school, ESD became more widely adopted over time. Now, the policies apply nationwide to a broad range of behaviors — from damaging property and fighting, to possessing a cell phone or tobacco, as well as behaviors described by subjective terms often undefined in the law, like willful defiance, obscenity, or profanity. Read More