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School Discipline Debate Centers on Benefits, Consequences of Federal Guidance

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Debate at a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing on school discipline Friday focused heavily on whether the U.S. Department of Education should maintain, revoke, or revise Obama-era guidance to schools designed to discourage suspensions for minor offenses and to drive down disproportionately high rates of discipline for students of color.

That 2014 "Dear Colleague" letter from the Education Department and the U.S. Department of Justice put schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if their policies have a "disparate impact" on one group of students, whether or not those policies were written with discriminatory intent (you can read a longer description of disparate impact here). Such federal guidance isn't legally binding, but it carries the threat of investigations and possible loss of federal funding for violating schools and districts.

A wave of reforms at the state and district levels—centered on research that showed adverse effects related to exclusionary school discipline—intensified after the document's release.

Supporters of the federal directive said Friday it has played a valuable role in inspiring change and sparking "courageous conversations" about race, specifically about issues like implicit bias, cultural norms, classroom expectations, and the constructive role discipline can play in preparing students to behave better in the future. Suspensions aren't a long-term solution to student misbehavior because they don't address the underlying causes, they said, and excessive reliance on classroom removals violates students' access to education.

Schools and educators are looking at their discipline data and "doing the hard work of examining what is leading to these disparities," said Monique Morris, the founder and president of the National Black Women's Justice Institute. "Without that guidance, I don't know that they would have necessarily been motivated to do so."

Civil rights advocates who testified Friday said students of color had been most heavily affected by suspensions for non-violent behavior, like truancy, dress code violations, and defiant behavior, an infraction that can be inconsistently applied. Districts that have revised their discipline policies have taken steps like limiting suspensions for such broadly defined offenses, and eliminating them for young students or first-time non-violent offenses.

But Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an outspoken critic of the federal guidance, said the resulting policy changes made by states and districts have often been ineffective, leading to drops in overall suspensions while gaps between black and white discipline rates persist. A fear of federal consequences for those gaps has led some districts to overly limit the use of suspensions, "taking a tool away from teachers" and leading to chaotic school environments, he said.

Many districts have moved to limit the use of suspensions without providing adequate resources or training for teachers in alternative methods of discipline, like restorative practices or tiered behavioral supports, Eden said. He cited the Los Angeles Unified School District, where teachers complained in 2015 that only a third of the district's 900 campuses had been fully trained in restorative practices, though changes to suspension policies had been applied to all campuses.

The Education Department has committed to continuing the collection and publication of the federal Civil Rights Data Collection, which includes statistics about suspensions, expulsions, and student arrests that can be disaggregated by factors such as race, gender, and disability status.

Alongside that data, the department can continue to publicize resources about discipline alternatives without imposing a mandate, Eden said.

"The question is to what extent will the federal government swoop into school districts and coerce them to change their practices?" Eden said.

But other witnesses said the force of federal guidance was necessary to protect students of color, whose needs may not always be prioritized in schools. They said schools don't have to choose between high suspension rates and unsafe classrooms. Reforms can be made without negative effects on classroom climate if teachers have proper resources and support, they said.

"The more we learn about the impact of discipline disparities on educational outcomes, and in particular the achievement of students of color with disabilities, the more likely it is that the national debate on discipline reform can return to the sound and reasoned discussion about what works best," said Dan Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Federal monitoring and enforcement efforts are necessary to help ensure that those most harmed by the unsound policies are not overlooked."

The hearing started hours before officials from the federal Education Department met with Educators for Excellence, a group of teachers who support the discipline guidance.

Under the leadership of Secretary Betsy DeVos, the department has added staff members who are critical of the guidance. They met previously with critics of the directive, intensifying talk that it may be repealed.

Some of those critics, including Minnesota teachers who said a change in suspension policies had created safety concerns in their schools, also spoke at Friday's hearing.

One retired teacher testified that a student had hit her and choked her in the classroom, and she did not feel supported by her school administration. After her district announced targets for reducing suspensions of black students, meant to narrow gaps, misbehaving students felt "emboldened to act out," she said.

Some educators also testified in support of the guidance Friday. 

"Children make bad decisions, but that does not make them bad children," said a Brooklyn elementary school teacher. She recalled a second-grade boy who brought a razorblade to school. Rather than quickly reacting, she had a conversation with the boy and learned that he'd seen his mother using it on her eyebrows and assumed it was a comb.

"It is our job as educators to teach them not only academics but how to cope with these situations that no 7-year-old should have to face," the teacher said.


Related reading on school discipline:

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