Education, Civil Rights, Civic and Child Advocacy Organizations Protest DeVos Action on School Discipline

Among the most important guarantees promised by public schools is the protection of children’s rights. Civil rights laws ban discrimination at school, and it is the established role of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to intervene when it can be shown that black and brown students or LGBTQ students or disabled students are being more severely punished and kicked out of school.  In late December, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker rolled back 2014, Obama era guidance (see here and here) that sought to eliminate very sizeable disparities in the number of out of school suspensions and expulsions by race, disability, and LGBTQ status.

Last week the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights sent a powerful letter to DeVos and Whitaker, a letter endorsed by 75 national organizations and 45 state organizations protesting the scrubbing of these civil rights protections. The letter is signed by education organizations like the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and National Council of Teachers of English; civil rights groups including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, League of United Latin American Citizens, National Indian Education Association, Human Rights Campaign, National Disability Rights Network, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center; a wide range of children’s and education advocacy groups including the Children’s Defense Fund, Democrats for Education Reform, National Black Child Development Institute, National Center for Learning Disabilities, Stand for Children, and the Education Trust; and civic organizations including the American Association of University Women, People for the American Way, National Urban League, PFLAG National, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Union for Reform Judaism.

It is worth reading the letter, which describes our society’s legal promise that schools will protect each child’s rights. The letter explains the legal basis for the 2014, Obama-era guidance DeVos and Whitaker just scrapped: “The federal government’s role in ensuring schools are free from discrimination has been articulated and confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and by ED (the U.S. Department of Education) in regulations implementing the law.  ED and (the Department of Justice) DOJ are both civil rights agencies and are responsible for protecting students from discrimination on the bases of race, color, national origin; sex; disability; and age. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, ED is tasked with enforcing these laws in response to complaints of discrimination and through proactive compliance reviews, data collection, and technical assistance.”

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is also tasked with providing guidance to assist schools as they develop programming that complies with the law—in this case to assist them in establishing restorative and supportive in-school discipline: “All of the laws that ED and DOJ enforce require regulations, policy guidance, and oversight in order to provide their intended benefits to students.”  The 2014 guidance just rescinded by DeVos and Whitaker, “provides practical tools and guidelines for educators to create safe, healthy, and inclusive environments for all students. The guidance documents were created to help schools serve students more effectively by explaining the harms of pushing children out of school; reminding them that racial discrimination is illegal, including discrimination in school discipline; and providing recommendations and resources to reduce disparities in exclusionary school discipline and improve school climate.”

Here is the reason for the 2014 guidance policies just rescinded by DeVos and Whitaker: “Researchers estimate that suspensions, most of which are for minor behaviors, result in tens of millions of days of lost instruction.  Black students are three times more likely to receive an out of school suspension and twice as likely to be subjected to a school-based arrest; and Native American students make up 1 percent of all children in schools, but 2 percent of children referred to law enforcement. These racial disparities can also be seen for students with disabilities and LGBTQ students.  23.2 percent of all Black children with disabilities have been suspended out of school while only 8.4 percent of White children with disabilities have been suspended, and 47 percent of Black LGBTQ students and 44 percent of Latino LGBTQ students have been disciplined at school compared with 36 percent of White LGBTQ students… Multiple studies have shown several negative effects on suspended children, such as falling behind academically; being held back; dropping out of school; and interacting with the juvenile justice system, as well as harm to children when their peers are suspended.  All children are harmed when schools overuse punitive exclusionary discipline.”

The Trump administration’s approach to school discipline reflects the harsh philosophy of DeVos’s Federal Commission on School Safety, whose recent report recommends hardening schools. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the mass of organizations signing this letter condemn the recent action by DeVos and Whitaker to cancel the 2014 guidance on school discipline: “This administration has taken one action after another to make schools less safe for LGBTQ students, sexual assault survivors, immigrant students, students of color, students with disabilities, and any child who experiences systemic discrimination… And when the nation is focused on the importance of building safe and inclusive school environments, rescinding the guidance sends exactly the wrong message… We urge this administration to reverse course and provide educators and schools the resources and information they need to protect children and support their learning, development and success….”