At a recent briefing held by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a public school teacher stated she believed that suspension rates are higher for African-American boys because they misbehave more. This statement is deeply concerning both because the Department of Education is listening to that kind of thinking to guide policy and because the facts do not support it.
There is no evidence that the racial disparities in punishment reflect bona fide differences in the rates of misbehavior. However, students of color and students with disabilities are punished at higher rates than their white and non-disabled peers for minor misconduct. Said differently, what determines whether or not a student is suspended from school is often not their behavior, but their skin color and/or whether or not they have a disability.
To address the racial disparity, in 2014 the Department of Justice and the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights issued a guidance letter to assist schools in meeting their obligations under Federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
Now, the Trump Administration wants to dramatically alter or rescind that 2014 discipline guidance. And the information they are using to justify this change is troubling. In addition to the anecdotal evidence offered by teachers to the Commission on Civil Rights, they are relying on dubious research and spreading misinformation about the 2014 guidance.
For instance, the guidance does not provide racial quotas for suspension. It does not inform school districts that they must refrain from suspending students who behave in a dangerous manner toward students, staff, or themselves. It does not dictate to states or schools how they should structure their programming. Schools may choose to implement the recommendations found in the guidance or not.
What it does do is support schools in their efforts to create and maintain safe and orderly educational environments that allow all our nation’s students to learn and thrive. The guidance has encouraged many schools to adopt comprehensive, appropriate, and effective programs demonstrated to: (1) reduce disruption and misconduct; (2) support and reinforce positive behavior and character development; and (3) help students succeed. It helps students succeed by encouraging schools to teach them positive social behaviors to replace the negative ones. Prevention is the solution, not misguided attempts at exclusion.
It’s working, too. In their study, Lost Instruction: The Disparate Impact of the School Discipline Gap in California, authors Daniel J. Losen and Amir Whitaker found “safety ratings for middle and high school students are at the highest level in five years, higher than before the new suspension policy was implemented and more than making up the initial decline.”
Despite this evidence, the Administration is clinging to inflammatory statements made by some that reducing suspension and expulsion results in chaos and injury. That teachers are being harmed by aggressive students (read thugs) and because of Federal interference (read Obama), there is nothing they can do about it. That’s nonsense.
All students and teachers deserve schools that are safe and supportive, that is not under debate. But the Trump Administration must use reliable facts and data to guide policy. In this case, the facts show that rather than making schools safer, suspension and expulsion results in hours of lost instruction for students of color and students with disabilities, and increases educational inequality.
The Department of Education should leave the 2014 discipline guidance in place and instead focus on giving our schools what they need to implement preventative strategies that work. They must train teachers to use conflict resolution, restorative practices, and provide counseling so all students can be successful in the classroom. The future of our children and the quality of our public schools depends on it.