Things got heated during U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s testimony before the U.S. House appropriations subcommittee Tuesday.
In particular, lawmakers debated DeVos’s potential revocation of Obama-era guidance that encourages K-12 districts to examine how their school discipline strategies may contribute to racial disparities in student punishment.
While mostly Democratic proponents of the guidance said it is helping to restore equity and fairness to school discipline, mostly Republican opponents argued that the guidance ties schools’ hands when it comes to how they choose to discipline students–and may lead to heightened violence, including school shootings, such as last month’s Parkland attack, Evie Blad reports in Education Week.
As the national debate over school safety wages, school discipline policies are also in the spotlight.
The guidance in question was released by the Obama administration in 2014 as part of its Rethink Discipline initiative, EdSource reports.
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In light of Department of Education data that showed that students of color and students with disabilities were three times more likely to face suspensions, expulsions, or law enforcement interventions than white students who committed similar nonviolent offenses, the administration provided the guidance to reverse potential discriminatory practices in school discipline.
The guidance encouraged K-12 school districts to develop alternatives to suspensions, expulsions, or referrals to law enforcement when students committed nonviolent infractions.
The Obama administration also stepped up investigations into existing school district discipline programs and whether they contributed to discipline disparities.
Less discipline, more violence?
During Tuesday’s hearing, Ujifusa reports, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) summed up opposition to the Obama guidance. “They’ve just stopped disciplining people,” Harris said of schools, adding, “They’re just afraid to do it.”
Opponents of the guidance have levied similar criticisms for years, but last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School brought increased scrutiny.
Broward County Public Schools, where Stoneman Douglas is located, was considered a model for the Obama administration’s discipline guidance, Blad reports.
The district’s disciplinary program, which was developed prior to the 2014 release of the federal guidance, outlines appropriate responses for specific disciplinary infractions. For certain non-violent behaviors, school staff may elect to refer students to the district’s PROMISE diversionary program rather than law enforcement.
But critics such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) have questioned whether the PROMISE program might have discouraged teachers or Broward County staff from referring eventual Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz to law enforcement when he was a student at Stoneman Douglas.
In a statement, Broward County schools Superintendent Robert Runcie disputed such criticisms, noting that there was no record of Cruz being referred to the PROMISE program:
“The District’s position with the PROMISE program and school discipline reform efforts, in partnership with local law enforcement, has always been explicitly clear— that there is no intent to limit or tie the hands of law enforcement in doing their jobs in addressing school safety.”
Making school discipline fair
Proponents of the guidance say that preventing violent behavior and discouraging racially-motivated discipline practices in schools are not mutually exclusive.
As Kristin Harper, director of the nonprofit Child Trends research center, told The 74:
“In fact, there is explicit language in the guidance that says we should train school personnel to be able to distinguish between violent and nonviolent behaviors, and to determine when law enforcement needs to be brought in.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, DeVos reiterated her support for the goal of the guidance–to ensure no student is discriminated against. But, acknowledged that the specifics are under review.
The guidance review, in conjunction with proposed cuts to ED’s Office of Civil Rights, drew heated reaction from Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), Ujifusa notes.
Said Clark during the hearing: “Your head is in the sand about racial bias and racial discrimination.”
Putting emotions and politics aside is difficult, but as school leaders and lawmakers look to address the problem of school safety, ensuring school discipline is both fair and effective remains an important part of the larger conversation.
How do you engage your community about issues surrounding school discipline? Tell us in the comments.