- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos heard radically different takes Wednesday on an Obama-era school-discipline advisory that, depending on who was testifying, is either working like a charm in some classrooms or creating hair-raising chaos in others.

In the first camp were educators and officials from influential education and civil-rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund and the National Education Association, who urged Ms. DeVos to keep the 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter on school discipline — a joint guidance by the Education and Justice departments that threatened schools with federal civil rights probes unless they reduce law-enforcement referrals, suspensions and expulsions of minority students.

The guidance, supporters argued, was needed to fight racial bias and keep students out of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”


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“We’re seeing across the country really great work happening in schools to move away from exclusionary discipline towards more positive behavior interventions,” said Evan Stone, co-CEO and co-founder of Educators for Excellence.

Evidently, he wasn’t referring to Lincoln High School in San Diego, where Nicole Stewart worked previously as a vice principal.



She described how one student slit a classmate’s throat two weeks after the administration refused to expel him for bringing a knife to school. Another student received a slap on the wrist for sexually assaulting a severely disabled boy, despite a lengthy history of sexual misconduct.

“We are not modeling what consequences look like in the real world,” said Ms. Stewart. “Our students are coming into what is a la-la land of sorts because there are no consequences for their actions.”

Ms. DeVos met in her conference room in separate discussions with two groups of about 15 teachers, parents and advocates. The talks were closed to the press, although participants on both sides took part in a press call afterward.

She had no immediate comment Wednesday, but Manhattan Institute senior fellow Max Eden, who participated in the roundtable, said she appeared “a little bit shocked.”

“These are not stories that get printed very frequently, but they are the lived experience of hundreds of thousands of teachers, and she just got a taste of a few of them,” Mr. Eden said. “Quite frankly, many times teachers are scared to speak out. Because if they do, they fear retaliation from the district or they fear that media will paint them as uncaring or as biased.”

Education spokesman Nate Bailey said there is no timetable for a decision on the guidance, which was aimed at addressing concerns about racial disparities in discipline.

Studies have long shown that black students are suspended and expelled at higher rates than their white counterparts.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday showed that black students make up 15.5 percent of all public-school students but accounted for 39 percent of suspensions. Boys and students with disabilities, which includes conditions like ADHD, were also disproportionately suspended.

Elementary school teacher Nina Leuzzi of the Bridge Boston Charter School said she has experienced encouraging results using “restorative justice” and “positive behavior intervention systems,” instead of expulsion and suspension.

“I would disagree with the idea that it’s made schools less safe,” Ms. Leuzzi said. “I think rescinding the guidance makes our schools less safe.”

Olinka Crusoe, who teaches elementary school in the New York City public system, said she has been able to maintain order in the classroom without traditional disciplinary methods in part because her students know “I’m approaching every situation with love.

“I can only imagine the impact I would have had on my former students who were removed repeatedly for disruptive behavior if I was trained earlier on to how to equally prioritize their social-emotional learning along with the core subjects,” Ms. Crusoe said.

Opposing the guidance were the School Superintendents Association, National School Boards Association and Center for Educational Opportunity, as well as teachers and parents alarmed by schools spinning out of control as administrators bend over backwards to avoid suspensions and expulsions.

“The secretary heard today from the silent majority,” Mr. Eden said. “Polling is very clear that teachers do not believe these top-down mandates — the federal threats to get the numbers down — actually work in schools.”

The problem, he said, is that “when you threaten principals that they need to get these numbers down, what that does is it forces them to either not handle misbehavior or to manipulate and misrecord — or not record — troubling, sometimes violent behavior. When that happens, things get out of hand.”

Annette Albright, who was attacked by a band of class-skipping students in 2016 while working at Harding University High School in Charlotte — and then fired — said the guidance protects the few disruptive students at the expense of the many.

“I think the Dear Colleague letter has done more harm than good,” Ms. Albright said. “It’s impossible for a teacher to teach in chaotic environments. It’s also impossible for students to learn in chaotic environments.”

Supporters of the guidance argued that not all schools have implemented the guidance properly by, for example, providing sufficient training to staff.

“There are certainly places where they are making mistakes on how to implement this, how they try to change the discipline systems that they use,” said Mr. Stone.

He noted that the Dear Colleague isn’t binding, although critics say that’s debatable. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has put pressure on schools to adhere to the guidance by launching civil-rights investigations against a half-dozen large districts.

“If it’s making schools feel less safe, I would argue that it opens up a conversation for us to think about how can schools be a little more respectful of the little individuals that are part of our schools’ communities and work better with our students and their needs in a more progressive way,” Ms. Crusoe said.

The discussions were closed to reporters “to protect the identities of participants who fear retaliation, are active in litigation or shared deeply personal stories involving family members and/or minors,” said the department in a statement.

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