DeVos Department of Ed Cancels Obama-Era Guidance Aimed at Reducing Racial Disparities in School Discipline

Here is some news you may have missed. On Friday, December 21, as everybody took off for the holidays, the Education and Justice Departments rescinded Obama-era school discipline guidance designed to address vast racial disparities in school discipline practices.  Particularly important was the purpose of the guidance: reducing overuse of suspension and expulsion, encouraging schools to handle discipline policies in ways that keep students in school, and developing restorative discipline programs to create a safe school climate. Officials in the Trump administration, including Betsy DeVos and her Federal Commission on School Safety, continue to endorse punitive discipline.

The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler describes the Obama-era guidance and the recent decision to cancel it: “The guidance, which was not binding, put school systems on notice that they could be violating federal civil rights law if students of color were disciplined at higher rates than white students.  It laid out scenarios and explained how they would be viewed by federal authorities.  And it offered suggestions for alternatives to discipline that could foster positive school climates.

Why did DeVos’s Federal Commission on School Safety recommend rescinding the guidance? Meckler explains: “In its report, the school safety commission criticized the guidance as an example of federal overreach and said it had created unsafe school environments by allowing bad behavior to go unpunished.  The report also attacked the legal principle of ‘disparate impact’ that the guidance relied upon—that discrimination can be proved by examining the effects of policies, not just the intention.”

Meckler continues, quoting Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), who is the new chair of the education committee in the U.S. House of Representatives: “The guidance was issued to help schools address the troubling and undeniable evidence that Black students, boys, and students with disabilities receive harsher punishments than their classmates for similar or lesser offenses… Rescinding the guidance will stall, if not reverse our progress toward addressing these disparities.”

It had been predicted that the Trump administration would rescind the Obama-era guidance. In early December, Linda Darling-Hammond and Christopher Edley published a commentary in The Hill advocating against the expected action. Edley is the former dean of the law school at the University of California and was co-chair of a National Commission on Educational Excellence and Equity. Darling-Hammond is an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University and president of the Learning Policy Institute. Edley and Darling-Hammond defend the Obama-era rules and the recent national effort to promote restorative school discipline: “Significant evidence finds that actions promoted by the guidance—teaching students social and emotional skills, supporting their mental health, and enabling them to take responsibility for their community—improve student behavior, make schools safer, and improve student achievement. The use of harsh exclusionary punishments—the alternative to the positive discipline policies recommenced in the guidelines—undermines safety and learning as student behavior, academic achievement and attainment worsen.”

Darling-Hammond and Edley continue: “Since the guidance has been in effect, a number of states have adopted its elements and seen declines in suspensions and violent incidents in schools.  Indeed, national statistics show that the percentage of public schools recording one or more incidents of violence, thefts or other crimes was lower during the period from 2015-2016 than in every prior survey year.”  Writing about out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, they explain: “These harsh punishments are administered at much higher rates to students of color and those with disabilities, and have profound consequences for their entire educational careers.  A single suspension can double the odds of a student dropping out.  Because students lose instructional time when they’re removed from school, those who are suspended have higher rates of course failure and grade retention, lower graduation rates and are more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system.”

The troubling complexity of changing a small town’s culture of school discipline leaps from last week’s NY Times report on educational and disciplinary disparities between white and American Indian students in Wolf Point, Montana. Wolf Point’s public schools serve many students from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Erica Green reports: “In June 2017, the Tribal Executive Board of Fort Peck filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights requesting a federal investigation into the tribe’s contention that the Wolf Point school system discriminates against Native students… According to the complaint and to interviews with dozens of students and families, Wolf Point schools provide fewer opportunities and fewer social and academic supports to Native students, who make up more than half of the student body….”  It is a small school district, but the reporter learned from interviews with students and their families: “The junior and senior high schools, which together have an enrollment of about 300, shunt struggling Native students into a poorly funded, understaffed program for remedial and truant students, often against their will.”

One hopes that, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights will fully investigate the policies of the school district in Wolf Point now that a formal federal complaint has been filed by the Tribal Executive Board.

Describing the difficulty of challenging the institutional culture of an isolated small town school district where patterns of student discipline have likely not changed in generations, Green quotes the attorney representing the Tribal Executive Board: “The discrimination is so ingrained that people think that’s just the way things are.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights exists precisely because there is an urgent need to challenge the unexamined habits of thought embedded so deeply in our culture.