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Equity & Diversity

Bring Back Anti-Discrimination Guidance on School Discipline, Commission Urges

By Corey Mitchell — July 23, 2019 4 min read
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A new report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wants the Trump administration to essentially reinstate guidance from the Obama administration on how to address disparities in school discipline.

The report, “Beyond Suspensions: Examining School Discipline Policies and Connections to the School-to-Prison Pipeline For Students of Color with Disabilities,” calls for the federal education department’s civil rights office to continue offering schools direction on how to ensure that students of color, including those with disabilities, aren’t disciplined more harshly than their peers.

Among the report’s key findings were that black, Latino, and Native American students as a whole, and by individual race group, were not more likely to commit discipline-worthy offenses than their white peers. But those non-white students were more likely to receive harsher and longer punishments for similar offenses.

The report also found that, with the exception of Latino and Asian American students with disabilities, students of color with disabilities were more likely than white peers with disabilities to be expelled from school without access to educational services.

The Obama administration issued guidance in 2014 that aimed to address racial disparity in discipline. But the Trump administration rescinded the directions late last year, arguing that the guidance was overbearing and, in some cases, posed a serious threat to school safety.

The civil rights commission was split 6-2 in its support of the report, with one of the dissenting members writing that there is no evidence to support the claim that non-white students are not more likely to engage in behavior that requires discipline.

The civil rights commission, led by Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration, urged current department leaders to actively address allegations of discrimination in school discipline policies and enforce the civil rights laws over which it has jurisdiction.

“While some schools and districts have made important progress, more work still needs to be done to ensure that all public school students are guaranteed equal protection of their right to an education as provided by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and under federal civil rights law,” the commission report concludes.

The 224-page report highlights the policy debate on the role the federal government should play in addressing discipline disparities.

Supporters of the Obama-era guidance argued that its guidance helped shield students of color from unfair consequences for discipline infractions, and highlighted schools’ frequent, unequal treatment for those students.

Critics, including the Federal Commission on School Safety led by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, claimed that it led some districts to curb the use of suspensions too aggressively, creating chaotic learning environments.

Gail Heriot, one of the commissioners who voted against adopting the report, was unsettled by the findings, arguing that the report provided no evidence to support some of its assertions and “amounts to an accusation that teachers are getting it not just wrong, but very wrong.”

“I wish racial disparities of this kind [in behavior] did not exist,” Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego, wrote in her dissent. “But the evidence shows they do exist, and pretending otherwise doesn’t benefit anyone (with the possible exception of identity politics activists). It certainly does not benefit minority children.”

In a statement provided to Education Week about the civil rights commission report, the Education Department wrote: “In too many instances ... the previous administration’s discipline guidance often led to school environments where discipline decisions were based on a student’s race and where quotas became more important than the safety of students and teachers. The Department’s decision to rescind that guidance makes it clear that discipline is a matter on which classroom teachers and local school leaders deserve and need autonomy. The Secretary has continued to encourage local school leaders to implement discipline reforms that they believe will foster improved outcomes for their students.”

The Education Department also noted that rescinding the discipline guidance has allowed it to more quickly resolve complaints from students who say they are victims of discrimination. As a part of the guidance, the Obama administration said that some disciplinary policies may violate civil rights laws if they lead to higher rates of discipline for some student groups, even if those policies are written without discriminatory intent. Under DeVos’ leadership, the department’s office for civil rights no longer requires that each student complaint be examined for evidence of broader discrimination.

Education Week Associate Editor Christina A. Samuels contributed to this report.

Related Reading

Racial Disparities in Special Ed: How Widespread Is the Problem?

Betsy Devos Revokes Obama Discipline Guidance Designed to Protect Students of Color

Here’s What the End of Obama-Era Discipline Guidance Means for Schools

Students Move Further Down School-to-Prison Pipeline With Every School Suspension

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