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Equity & Diversity

DeVos’ Team Hears Criticisms of Obama-Era Guidance on Student Discipline

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 17, 2017 4 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education hosted a meeting Friday of educators who have concerns about 2014 guidance from the Obama administration that pushed school officials to ensure that their discipline policies don’t have a disproportionate impact on students from certain racial and ethnic groups.

Civil rights groups and their advocates in Congress worry the meeting could serve as a prelude to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos ultimately revoking the guidance. It would be the latest move by DeVos and her department to end Obama-era guidance concerning transgender students and sexual assault on college campuses under Title IX.

Civil rights and student groups have put the prospect that this discipline guidance could be reversed at the top of their list of concerns since President Donald Trump took office.

Disparate Impact

The 2014 guidance, which was long anticipated by civil rights groups before it was released, put schools on notice that they could be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if they have discipline rates that are disproportionately high for students in one racial group, even if the school’s policies weren’t written with discriminatory intent.

For example, if a school suspends black students at higher rates than their peers, federal officials might explore data to see if they are facing harsher punishments for the same rule violations compared to their peers.

Supporters of the guidance said it would help to slow the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term they use to describe overly punitive discipline policies that research links to negative outcomes for students.

But critics said the guidance amounted to putting “racial quotas” on school discipline and that it had a chilling effect, causing schools to avoid disciplining students for some behaviors.

Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation participated in the meeting, along with the Center of the American Experiment in Minnesota, and some Minnesota teachers. One of those teachers suffered a permanent brain injury when a student tackled him in the cafeteria, Petrilli said. Also on hand: Jason Botel, who is filling the role of assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education; Candice Jackson, who is the acting assistant secretary for civil rights; and Hans Bader, an attorney who works in the Education Department’s Office of the General Counsel.

Bader asked a number of questions about the legal implications of the guidance, Petrilli said. But otherwise, the department didn’t tip its hand on what it plans to do next.

“It was really mostly a listening session,” Petrilli said. The teachers were “just sharing their stories, that was most of it.”

Petrilli, for one, would like to see the Obama-era guidance on this issue rescinded sooner rather than later.

“It’s a reasonable question to say ‘what’s taking them so long’,” he said. “I think the clearest path is just to go back to the world as it was in 2013, which is that the [office for civil rights] would investigate complaints of discrimination.” Leaving the guidance on the books, he said, is “really creating some dangerous circumstances in our schools.” Ending racial disparities in discipline is important, he said, but “can’t come at the expense of student safety or teacher safety.”

However, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the House education committee, urged DeVos to keep the 2014 guidance.

“Any effort to address school discipline must also consider the deeply rooted inequities, including documented and pervasive racial bias, in school discipline practices that disproportionately harm students of color and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline,” Scott said in a statement.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund also called on the Education Department to keep the 2014 guidance intact.

“Research shows that students of color do not misbehave more than their white peers, but are often disciplined for subjective infractions, such as disrespect of authority,” the organization wrote in a statement. “The 2014 guidance helps schools avoid the arbitrary application of school discipline, identify unexplained racial disparities, and take steps to address them, such as providing school-based interventions for students.”

Judith Browne Dianis, the executive director of the Advancement Project’s national office, seconded those sentiments.

“The desire to return to ineffective and discriminatory zero-tolerance policies is about protecting the comfort of adults, not improving the safety of school communities,” she said in a statement. “It is a well-established fact that Black and Brown students behave no worse than their white counterparts. It’s simply easier for adults to remove Black and Brown students from the classroom, than build community within their schools, develop relationships and address the root cause of a student’s behavior. Schools must do the hard part of implementing restorative justice, not pushing students out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.”

News of the meeting was first reported by Politico.

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Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer and Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.