Opinion
Special Education Opinion

The Haunting Reality of Discrimination in School Discipline

By Catherine E. Lhamon — July 29, 2019 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

One of my few regrets following my time as the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education in the second term of the Obama Administration is that I did not succeed in publicly producing guidance focused on discipline of students with disabilities. Such guidance would have been a companion to the 2014 joint guidance we issued together with the U.S. Department of Justice, focused on race-based discrimination in school discipline. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration withdrew even that guidance in December 2018 and did not replace it with alternative information about how to satisfy nondiscrimination law.

I am especially grateful, therefore, that my colleagues at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which I chair, voted to take up this topic and last week released our report focused on the civil rights issues related to discipline of students of color with disabilities. The report documents that discrimination based on race and disability in school discipline practices has plagued education across the United States for decades and can wreak significant harm on students and school communities.

The discipline investigations I led as assistant secretary pain me to this day. I expect I will be forever haunted by the memory of the mother who, while still in the school parking lot in her car, heard her 9-year-old child’s screams from well within a school building, while the school subjected her child to unlawful and life-threatening prone restraint in school.

These students' experiences represent the humanity that data can only partially describe."

I cannot forget the 5-year-old child whose school subjected him to manual restraint at least 37 times in a single school year without ever discussing the use of restraints with the appropriate parties or reflecting the use of restraints in his behavior intervention plan. The school ultimately threatened his mother and grandmother that if one of them did not arrive to school to pick him up within 45 minutes because of his behavior, then the school would report them to social services or to the police.

I remain stunned that district staff needed the federal government to correctly identify how to address disability-based harassment when a school disciplined a student rather than a teacher who told the student with multiple mental-health diagnoses that she should kill herself. In a crowded hallway and on videotape, the teacher proceeded to taunt the student over a past suicide attempt, suggesting she should succeed this time.

These students’ experiences represent the humanity that data can only partially describe. Their educators’ challenge to impart classroom instruction, while maintaining order and responding in real time to the many vagaries of human interaction that occupy any school day, impose significant stressors on the imperative also to satisfy civil rights obligations to each and every child. But that imperative nonetheless controls and the students deserve nothing less than to live its promise every day.

I have done the spade work to review investigation files, sifting facts and applying law to those facts, evaluating students’ and educators’ experiences in schools. I know from that work what is not abstract: when differences in similarly situated students’ experiences cannot be explained by neutral criteria dissociated from race or from disability, discrimination occurs. And children learn the messages their schools send to them about their perceived worth as people and their place in their communities. I am grateful for our longstanding federal laws protecting children from these harms, and I continue to support aggressive enforcement of those laws to make those protections real in students’ lives.

Of course, mere statistical disparity must not drive a federal mandate for change. As the commission’s report documents, it does not and has not. The office for civil rights’s appropriate role—the one Congress has assigned to it for six decades—is to investigate facts and, where it determines that the law has been violated, to work with schools to ensure they operate nondiscriminatory practices going forward. OCR’s mandate is to investigate any complaint over which it has jurisdiction; that mandate now and historically has meant that the office investigates hundreds of complaints alleging discrimination in school discipline practices. During the final two years alone of the Obama Administration, OCR received 464 complaints regarding disability-based discrimination in school discipline, 163 complaints specifically regarding use of restraint or seclusion in schools, and 494 complaints regarding race-based discrimination in school discipline.

I am grateful that even in the Trump Administration, the Department of Education’s office for civil rights persists in resolving individual cases with appropriate recognition of the searing harm race- and disability-based discrimination in discipline practices can inflict on students and on school communities. OCR does its job best when it efficiently, fairly, and thoroughly resolves those investigations to protect student rights, shares its expertise about how to apply the law to facts to prevent discrimination from occurring in the first instance, and works with school districts around the country to satisfy the law before children are hurt.

I appreciate the commission’s detailed review of the law, literature, and existing federal enforcement practices in our report and stand firmly behind the recommendations. Those recommendations include urging OCR to vigorously enforce civil rights laws by addressing allegations of discrimination in school discipline policies. The commission also urges the Office for Civil Rights to return to offering guidance to school communities on how to comply with these nondiscrimination laws related to race and disability in the imposition of school discipline. The commission also noted that it is critical for teachers to have resources, guidance, training, and support to ensure nondiscriminatory discipline in schools. Congress should fund these types of programs, including through grant programs from the departments of Education and Justice.

My children and all children, and our nation, will benefit from the satisfaction of the commission’s recommendations in schools.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Start Strong With Solid SEL Implementation: Success Strategies for the New School Year
Join Satchel Pulse to learn why implementing a solid SEL program at the beginning of the year will deliver maximum impact to your students.
Content provided by Satchel Pulse
Teaching Live Online Discussion Seat at the Table: How Can We Help Students Feel Connected to School?
Get strategies for your struggles with student engagement. Bring questions for our expert panel. Help students recover the joy of learning.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Science Webinar
Real-World Problem Solving: How Invention Education Drives Student Learning
Hear from student inventors and K-12 teachers about how invention education enhances learning, opens minds, and preps students for the future.
Content provided by The Lemelson Foundation

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education The Pandemic Changed How We Teach Students With Learning Differences
Educators shared their new knowledge as part of Education Week's interactive Q & A.
2 min read
Image of a puzzle and brain illustration.
Getty
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Special Education Whitepaper
Easterseals Intersection Collective: Disability + BiPOC Youth
This white paper is meant to highlight the current efforts of the Intersection Collective and opportunities to collaborate. We welcome yo...
Content provided by Easterseals
Special Education What the Research Says 3 Out of 4 Gifted Black Students Never Get Identified. Here's How to Find Them
Most attend schools where they never get a chance to be recognized, a new Purdue University study finds.
4 min read
Group of diverse students embracing teacher at school corridor.
E+/Getty
Special Education What the Research Says Federal Special Ed. Funding Is Woefully Inequitable, New Studies Show
Outdated funding formulas continue to widen gaps that shortchange students with disabilities and other vulnerable groups, researchers say.
5 min read
A paraprofessional guides a student back to his gym class while participating in remote learning at his home in Wharton, N.J.
Paraprofessional Jessica Wein guides Josh Nazzaro back to his gym class while participating in remote learning at his home in Wharton, N.J., in 2020. New research adds to long-standing critiques of federal funding for special education.
Seth Wenig/AP