Equity & Diversity

Rep. Scott Urges DeVos to Keep Obama-Era School Discipline Guidance

By Evie Blad — January 11, 2018 2 min read
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Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat and ranking member of the House education committee, urged U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Thursday not to scrap a directive issued by the Obama administration with the aim of driving down disproportionately high discipline rates for students of color.

That 2014 civil rights guidance, which has been criticized as too heavy-handed by some conservative organizations, is key to “dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline,” Scott said in a statement after his first meeting with DeVos, during which he shared the education priorities of House Democrats.

“States and school districts need the tools and resources provided by this guidance package to ensure compliance with federal education and civil rights laws which require that they identify and address any racial bias in discipline policies and practices,” Scott said. “Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Title IV-A grants are another valuable tool, which is why I also urged the Secretary to support school districts in using ESSA dollars to keep students in school and out of prison. As we begin this new year, I hope that Secretary DeVos and I will continue to have productive conversations on ending the school-to-prison pipeline and other issues important to students and families.”

The discipline guidance, issued by the Obama-era Education and Justice Departments, put schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if they discipline students of one racial group at higher rates than others, even if their policies were written without discriminatory intent (read more on that principle, called disparate impact ). The guidance, and accompanying resources, suggested schools reduce the use of exclusionary discipline practices, like suspensions, for minor offenses in favor of practices like restorative justice and broader school climate efforts.

Supporters of the federal directive say students of color have been most heavily affected by suspensions for non-violent behavior, like truancy, dress-code violations, and defiant behavior, an infraction that can be inconsistently applied. Vague rules are prone to be applied through a biased lens, they argue. For example, what one teacher may interpret as defiance, another teacher may see as a result of student trauma or fear.

But critics of the guidance have said some districts applied racial “quotas” on suspensions to comply with the rule and to keep their discipline data from showing disparities, creating unsafe school environments.

DeVos has met with both critics and supporters of the guidance. She has not said publicly if she will rescind the guidance, but the Education Department has rolled back several other civil rights measures under her leadership, including guidance on the rights of transgender students and on addressing sexual assault.

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