Betsy DeVos Mulls The Fate Of Guidance Designed To Reduce Racial Bias In Schools

DeVos is meeting with proponents and critics of Obama-era guidance intended to stymie the school-to-prison pipeline.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met with a group of civil rights leaders, parents and teachers Wednesday morning to discuss the impact of Obama-era guidance that calls on schools to reduce their reliance on suspensions and to consider whether racial bias plays a role in their disciplinary practices. The examination of this guidance is part of DeVos’ work as leader of a new Federal Commission on School Safety, although she has reportedly been thinking for months about rescinding the guidance.

Wednesday’s meeting, which took place on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., involved leaders in some of the country’s most prominent civil rights groups, including the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law ― all of which are strongly in favor of keeping the guidance. Other participants included leaders from the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, as well as teachers from the advocacy group Educators for Excellence and education researchers.

Later on Wednesday, DeVos also met with groups, parents and teachers who want to see the guidance repealed.

Liz King, senior policy analyst and director of education policy for the Leadership Conference, described the morning meeting as “frustrating and underwhelming.” King spoke directly to Education Department officials about how this administration’s actions are having a negative impact on school climate, especially for LGBTQ and immigrant students. She urged DeVos to maintain the existing guidance.

“Our children deserve better than this administration,” said King, who described DeVos as “very pleasant,” although “she didn’t say much.”

Evan Stone, co-CEO of Educators for Excellence, left the meeting with a more positive view, although he still suspects advocates of the guidance are fighting an “uphill battle.” He was heartened that DeVos opened the meeting by acknowledging the large racial disparities in how students are disciplined. DeVos said she was moved by the stories from educators in the room, according to Stone.

Stone’s group requested that DeVos come visit some of the communities that have had positive experiences with the Obama-era guidance.

“Hopefully the lived experience of teachers who are working to change things will have an impact,” he said.

In a country where students of color, students with disabilities and LGBTQ students are disproportionately subject to harsh disciplinary practices, like suspensions and expulsions, the guidance is seen as a tool to help reduce the flow of students who are pushed from school into the criminal justice system. The guidance warns schools that they could be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if they are disciplining some groups of students ― like students of color or students with disabilities ― at disproportionately high rates. It also encourages schools to adopt restorative justice practices as a way to deal with discipline issues, rather than punishments that push kids out of the classroom.

On the other side of the issue, critics say the guidance helps keep disruptive children in the classroom, putting teachers and students at risk. The guidance came under renewed scrutiny after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, when conservative leaders speculated that lax discipline policies allowed the accused shooter’s behavior to go unchecked. (The school’s responses to the suspect’s behavior appear entirely unrelated to the guidance. The Education Department had also started meeting with critics of the guidance months before the shooting.)

But even before Wednesday’s meetings began, DeVos faced critiques from the advocacy groups and civil rights organizations that had not been offered a seat at the table. Groups like the National Women’s Law Center sent DeVos a letter slamming what they called “the exclusive and non-transparent approach” of the summit. The letter was co-signed by groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Transgender Equality. It expressed the groups’ support for the guidance.

A number of other groups asked to be included in Wednesday’s discussion but did not receive an invitation. A representative from the National Disability Rights Network told HuffPost they asked the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights for an invitation last Friday, but the agency declined. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a group that represents children with disabilities, also asked both the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights and its Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services for an invitation, but did not hear back.

King said it was “was glaringly apparent there was no one from the disability community, the LGBTQ community, the Native American community, the Latino community, or the immigrant community in the room.”

Additionally, only one of the country’s major teachers unions was invited, with the administration leaving out the American Federation of Teachers.

“I find it very offensive that they don’t want to hear our opinions,” AFT President Randi Weingarten told HuffPost.

DeVos’ meeting with critics of the guidance included groups like the Manhattan Institute, as well as parents and teachers who believe the guidance should be rescinded. (The Education Department did not respond to HuffPost’s request for information about who would be present at this meeting.)

Nicole Landers of Baltimore County is one such parent. She says the relaxed disciplinary practices at her kids’ schools have come at the expense of student safety. Landers’ daughter was sexually harassed last year by another student when she was a fifth-grader. Her older son was bullied to the point where he became suicidal. Their tormentors, though, remained in the classroom, and she believes the Obama-era guidance helped make this situation possible.

“Whatever intentions were set forth in the guidance, the response to the guidance has been kind of knee-jerk in nature that has ended up hurting all of the children,” Landers said. “It takes away the rights from the victimized students, as the offending students are left in the classroom to avoid suspensions.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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