School Climate & Safety

Keep School Discipline Directive, District Leaders and Charter Schools Tell DeVos

By Evie Blad — July 10, 2018 3 min read
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Federal guidance aimed at reducing racial disparities in school discipline rates has sparked necessary changes in schools, and it should not be rescinded, a group of charter schools, superintendents, and education groups wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions Tuesday.

“We believe the overwhelming evidence of racial and other biases in school discipline warrants action by the federal government—and will continue to catalyze long-overdue change,” the letter said. “We hope ED and DOJ remain partners in this critical work and do not roll back the common sense guidance aimed at protecting students’ civil rights.”

DeVos and Justice Department officials have heard input from supporters and critics of the 2014 civil rights guidance, issued by the Obama administration, as they consider whether to revise or rescind it. The guidance put schools on notice that they could be investigated for possible civil rights violations if they discipline students in one racial group at higher rates than their peers, even if their policies weren’t written with clear discriminatory intent. It also aims to tackle similar disproportionately high discipline rates for students with disabilities.

Critics, including conservative lawmakers and think tanks, have argued that the guidance tied the hands of local decisionmakers and led to distracting classroom environments by encouraging schools to limit the use of suspensions.

Supporters said the guidance merely outlines court precedents related to the “disparate impact” of certain discipline policies, and that it is necessary to protect students’ civil rights. They point to federal data that show black students and students with disabilities are disciplined at consistently higher rates than their peers. Schools and districts’ have complied with the guidance by monitoring discipline data to ensure that rules are applied consistently, by eliminating suspensions for vague, nonviolent infractions like “defiance,” and by adopting programs like restorative practices, which encourage students to resolve conflicts through structured conversations.

“The federal government has an important role to play in upholding students’ civil rights and can do so without stifling important local autonomy,” said Tuesday’s letter, which was signed by organizations including some individual KIPP charter schools , Summit Charter Schools, and the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s urban school systems. “We recognize our country has a rich tradition of states’ rights and local decisionmaking, but we also know that existing civil rights laws and regulations mandate the federal government ensure the rights of citizens are protected.”

Signers of Tuesday’s letter also include district leaders from Denver, New York City, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Orange County Fla., Providence, R.I., San Antonio, and Broward County, Fla. State superintendents from Nevada and Minnesota also signed on, as well as representatives from a range of education organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, Educators for Excellence, Teach for America, The Broad Center, and the Education Trust.

Photo: A student passes through a doorway at Ron Brown Academy, a public high school for young men of color in Washington, D.C. that uses alternative discipline practices, like restorative practices, to address student behavior concerns. Learn more about the school by listening to Raising Kings, a podcast series that resulted from a yearlong reporting collaboration between Education Week and NPR. --Kavitha Cardoza/Education Week

Further reading on school discipline and civil rights:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.