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Lawmakers Ask Betsy DeVos to Clamp Down on ‘Zero Tolerance’ Discipline

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 27, 2017 2 min read
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More than 60 Democratic lawmakers in Congress have requested more information from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about how she plans to support reductions in school discipline policies that remove students from classrooms and schools.

In the Wednesday letter, the members of Congress stress to DeVos that limiting out-of-school suspensions and harsh, “zero tolerance” disciplinary approaches lead to a better atmosphere for minority students, while continuing such practices disproportionately impacts those students. They want DeVos to use her oversight power to make sure states’ Every Student Succeeds Act plans support other approaches to discipline, and they want to know what, if any, guidance she plans to provide to states on the issue.

DeVos hasn’t really weighed in decisively with her thoughts on school discipline. In June, she ducked a question about the disproportionate impact of some disciplinary practices on certain groups of students. (We asked the U.S. Department of Education for any response to the letter, and we’ll update this post if we hear back.)

But it was an area where the Obama administration was relatively active. Obama Education Department officials, for example, called for school discipline practices to be more evenhanded. And they highlighted data about how minority students have been on the receiving end of more serious forms of discipline. An Education Week analysis released in January showed that black students are arrested at school at disproportionate rates.

“We believe it is well within the scope of the Department’s authority to continue taking steps towards reducing exclusionary and aversive discipline practices in schools, and that the Department has an obligation to take such steps under the Every Student Succeeds Act,” the lawmakers wrote to DeVos.

Instead, the lawmakers say that DeVos should encourage approaches such as positive behavioral interventions and supports, trauma-informed care, and de-escalation techniques. Some analysts, however, have questioned the Obama administration’s approach. A March study of New York City schools written by Max Eden for the Manhattan Institute, for example, found that school climate might suffer if there’s a shift away from suspensions.

“It is often assumed that reducing suspensions will help those students without imposing negative spillover effects on their better-behaved peers. However, research demonstrates that disruptive peer behavior can have significant negative effects on students,” Eden wrote.

Read the Democratic lawmakers’ full letter below:

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