School Climate & Safety

School Discipline: Federal Directive Didn’t Spark Changes, Most Schools Chiefs Say

By Evie Blad — May 02, 2018 5 min read
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As U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos considers whether to revoke Obama-era civil rights guidance that aims to drive down racially disparate rates of school discipline, a polarizing debate has raged around her.

On one side, supporters of the guidance say it has inspired schools and districts around the country to make transformational changes to their policies and practices, ensuring more fair treatment for students of color.

On the other side, critics of the guidance argue it has had a chilling effect on school discipline by discouraging the use of suspensions and sacrificing school climate in the process.

But neither side is entirely correct, according to the AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

The organization released a survey of 950 district leaders in 47 states on the impact of the 2014 “Dear Colleague” Letter. Just 16 percent of respondents said their districts had modified discipline policies and practices as a result of the guidance.

Of those who’d made changes because of the directive, “4.5 percent of those respondents—or less than 1 percent of all respondents—indicated the 2014 discipline guidance has had a negative or very negative impact on school personnel’s ability to address disciplinary issues of students or remove students who are disruptive, aggressive or abusive to students or staff.” And 44 percent of respondents who’d made changes because of the guidance—7 percent of the total number of respondents, “indicated that it has been a positive experience and/or has led to positive outcomes for the district,” the survey found.

“Discipline policies and practices have long been a contentious issue for school district leaders and changing these practices and policies requires collaboration and judiciousness,” a summary of the results said. “The 2014 discipline guidance has not been transformative in changing school discipline policies, practices and outcomes related to discipline. Given that only 16 percent of district leaders surveyed in 2018 indicated their district has modified their school discipline policies and practices because of the 2014 discipline guidance, we cannot say that it is having the positive or negative effects some advocates in Washington are claiming.”

That’s not to say that schools haven’t changed their discipline policies, but most haven’t cited the guidance as the cause for doing so. Some instead pointed to more aggressive use of systemic investigations by the Education Department’s office for civil rights that started in 2009.

A 2013 survey that AASA administered in partnership with the Council of State Governments before the federal guidance was issued, found that 56 percent of district leaders had recently revised their student codes of conduct. Common changes included graduated systems for responding to misbehavior and changes in policies related to exclusionary discipline, like suspensions and expulsions. I would also note that many states changed their laws on school discipline in the years before and after the guidance was issued, taking steps like limiting schools’ ability to suspend students for broad infractions like “defiance.”

“Clearly, district leaders were already taking steps to align their district policies and practices with the recommendations presented in the 2014 discipline guidance and the goal of reducing out-of-school time and punitive responses to school discipline was happening absent a federal directive,” the survey results say. “It is less clear, however, if the enhancement of the investigatory arm at OCR was playing a meaningful role in encouraging districts to change their discipline policies and practices. If so, fear of an investigation by OCR or the experience of being investigated by OCR could also be attributed to changes that many districts made between 2011 and 2013 to discipline practices and policies.”

Twenty percent of respondents said that “pressure” from the civil rights arm “has led them to keep students in school who school staff would have preferred to remove,” the AASA said.

The organization also interviewed districts that had been subject to investigations by the office for civil rights. They complained that “investigations into individual complaints quickly morphed into districtwide investigations that required school personnel to compile information on discipline infractions and policies in every grade and school” and that gathering data for those investigations was “unprecedented, intimidating, and costly,” the report says.

Under DeVos’s leadership, the Education Department has limited civil rights investigations, reversing an Obama-era policy that required investigators to examine several years of data to consider whether individual complaints of discrimination are part of a larger pattern that affects other students.

DeVos’s move led to criticism from civil rights groups and from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee.

“President Trump and his Administration can claim to oppose discrimination all they want, but actions speak louder than words—and everything they are doing is making it clear that they want to defang and weaken the federal government’s tools to protect the civil rights and safety of people across the country,” Murray said in a June statement.

But AASA recommended the department should continue to ensure that the “scope of data and process for investigation is reasonable.”

DeVos has not provided a timeline for her decision about the discipline guidance.

You can read the survey results here.

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.