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School Climate & Safety

Betsy DeVos Weighing Action on School Discipline Policy

By Evie Blad & Alyson Klein — April 10, 2018 5 min read
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As the Trump administration weighs whether it will revise or revoke Obama-era rules on school discipline, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for the first time heard directly from both sides of the hotly debated issue.

The 2014 civil rights guidance—jointly issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice—put schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if they enforce intentionally discriminatory rules or if their policies lead to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students in one racial group, even if those policies were written without discriminatory intent.

DeVos’ closed-door meetings last week came as the Government Accountability Office released a report that found that black students are consistently disciplined at higher rates than their peers. While black students represented 15.5 percent of public school students in 2013-14, they made up 39 percent of students suspended, the report said.

“These disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended,” GAO investigators found.

At the heart of the debate over the guidance is why those differing discipline rates occur and the role of the federal government in addressing them. Also at issue: whether schools’ efforts to limit expulsions and suspensions have helped students feel more supported or have too severely limited teacher discretion in discipline.

DeVos has not committed to a time frame for making a final decision on the guidance. That decision is also on the agenda of a school safety task force DeVos chairs that was assembled by the White House after a Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

The department has held 12 roundtables on school discipline, but this was the first one that DeVos personally participated in, said Nate Bailey, a spokesman for the secretary.

DeVos has also met with lawmakers, including Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the House education committee, who supports the Obama policy, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who urged DeVos to re-examine it after the Parkland shooting.

The April 4 summit, which was also attended by Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights John Gore, was split into two roundtables: one for supporters of the guidance, the other for critics and those with concerns.

Criticism and Support

Critics, who included teachers and representatives from the National School Boards Association and AASA, the School Superintendents Association, say the document has had a chilling effect on local decisionmaking.

Racial differences in discipline rates can’t entirely be explained by different treatment in schools, those critics contend. They argue black students are more likely to be exposed to out-of-school factors, like poverty, which can cause them to misbehave more.

Schools afraid of sparking federal investigations have limited teachers’ ability to discipline students without providing useful alternatives, those critics have said. Others, aiming to drive down suspension rates, have set goals that some see as “quotas.”

Nicole Stewart, a former vice principal at Lincoln High School in San Diego, said she told DeVos about the district’s practice of “blue slipping” students, sending them home with an unexcused absence so their punishment isn’t counted as a suspension.

A student at Stewart’s former school recently brought a knife to school, but because he didn’t brandish it in a threatening manner, he was not referred for an automatic expulsion under the school’s new discipline code, she said. Administrators could have recommended him for an expulsion hearing, but they determined his behavior was related to a disability (under separate federal laws, students can’t be disciplined for manifestations of diagnosed disabilities). Two weeks later, the student slashed a peer’s throat, Stewart said.

“We are not modeling as a system what consequences look like in the real world,” she said.

In a statement, the AASA said a survey of school leaders shows the guidance has not been “transformative” in changing schools’ discipline practices and that the claim that it alone has made unsafe school environments is “hard to justify.”

Supporters of the guidance say it has been instrumental in protecting the civil rights of students who are often overlooked. And the directive has motivated states and districts to re-examine their disciplinary practices, making changes that have benefited all students, they said.

Many problems that have been attributed to the guidance are actually problems with how districts have implemented their own policies, they said. Teachers need training and resources to support their students, and schools shouldn’t remove the ability to suspend students for some offenses without helping teachers with alternative discipline practices, they said.

Marisa Crabtree, who met with DeVos and has taught at Lincoln High School in Los Angeles for 14 years, remembered a time when, as a rookie teacher, she asked an older peer what to do when her students come to class without pencils and notebooks. “Oh, you can always suspend them,” she remembers that teacher saying.

“I remember thinking that’s just ridiculous,” Crabtree said. Students might come to class unprepared because they can’t afford notebooks or because they have a chaotic home life, she said.

Los Angeles began changing its disciplinary policies in 2012, before the federal guidance was adopted. And, in the years since, California has also adopted laws that restrict schools’ ability to suspend younger students for infractions like “defiance.”

Crabtree says the new policies have made her a better teacher and have given her strategies for addressing problems before they spiral into severe misbehavior.

Persistent Disparities

The GAO report found disproportionately high rates of discipline for black students, students with disabilities, and boys. Rep. Scott, who requested the investigation, said it “underscores the need to combat these gross disparities by strengthening, not rescinding” the guidance.

The report says the differences in discipline rates cannot be entirely attributed to differential treatment by schools. Behavioral differences “may be affected by health and social challenges outside the classroom,” it says.

But it also notes that some teachers perceive students’ behavior differently by race. The report cited a study that used eye-tracking technology to show that “teachers gazed longer at black boys than other children when asked to look for challenging behavior based on video clips.”

The report also found that national rates of suspensions started dropping in the years before the guidance was released, which means the changes cannot be entirely credited to—or blamed on—the federal guidance.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2018 edition of Education Week as Betsy DeVos Weighing Action on School Discipline Policy

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