The Trump administration is being accused of racism for targeting an Obama-era directive compelling schools to ease up on discipline for minority students — even though the policy has made life more difficult for kids, including minorities, stuck in increasingly unruly classrooms.
Ask Virginia Walden Ford, who runs a church-based after-school snack program in Little Rock. She was recently surprised when a young, fearful black girl turned up before the end of the school day and admitted she had skipped class.
Why? She had been involved in a fight the day before with another girl, but the school had refused to suspend her assailant, and she worried that the girl would try to pick a fight with her again.
“She had been continually bullied all year long,” recalled Ms. Ford, an EdChoice board member. “My advice was, ‘Talk to your counselor, teacher, parents,’ but she made it really, really clear to me that day that that’s not doing any good. Her school does not want to suspend students. They’re trying to keep the suspension rate down.”
The girl isn’t alone. Critics of the 2014 Dear Colleague — an advisory on non-discriminatory school discipline, issued by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights — say the policy has been enormously successful in reducing suspensions and expulsions, but it’s also made schools more chaotic, even dangerous.
By replacing suspensions with counseling, the schools have in some cases kept rowdy students in class while pushing out well-behaved students who either fear being attacked or have given up on trying to learn in poorly disciplined classrooms.
“Those kind of things are changing the environment of the school so that kids who need to feel safe, kids who really, really want to learn, we’re seeing higher dropout rates,” said Ms. Ford, who spoke at a March 12 Heritage Foundation forum. “We’re seeing kids staying home. It’s a battleground for children instead of a safe haven for children. And we’ve seen it since the Obama administration policy.”
Manhattan Institute senior fellow Max Eden cited an analysis released in December by the Philadelphia public schools showing that truancy rates, after ticking down for years, have skyrocketed, along with “serious misbehavior and declining achievement.”
“Evidence is mounting that efforts to fight the school-to-prison pipeline is creating a school climate catastrophe and has if anything put at-risk students at greater risk,” said Mr. Eden at a Dec. 8 hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Accusations of racism
Even so, efforts to dismantle or scale back the Obama-era policy have been met with accusations of racism from advocates of “restorative justice,” as evidenced most recently by the reaction to the Trump administration’s recent school-safety initiative.
The White House unveiled March 12 an immediate action plan to “secure our schools” after last month’s deadly Parkland school shooting as well as the formation of the Federal Commission on School Safety, chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The commission was charged with making recommendations on a dozen “areas of focus,” including “repeal of the Obama administration’s ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies,” prompting a flurry of media criticism.
“When Republicans Go After Children of Color, Democrats Need to Fight Back,” said the Washington Monthly headline on a March 14 column by Nancy LeTourneau.
“In a sick irony, some on the right would use the recent school shooting in Parkland, Fla. — allegedly committed by a young man who carved swastikas into the magazines for his semiautomatic rifle — as a pretext to roll back civil rights protections for students of color,” said New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg in a March 12 op-ed.
During her rocky “60 Minutes” interview on March 11, Ms. DeVos received an earful from host Lesley Stahl on why she shouldn’t repeal the policy.
“Yeah, but let’s say there’s a disruption in the classroom and a bunch of white kids are disruptive and they get punished, you know, go see the principal,” said Ms. Stahl. “But the black kids are, you know — they call in the cops. I mean, that’s the issue: Who and how the kids who disrupt are being punished.”
There’s no question that black students are suspended and expelled at higher rates than other students, in some cases two to three times higher, a “disparate impact” that the Obama administration attributed to the unconscious or conscious bias of teachers and administrators.
The 2014 policy came in part in reaction to the “zero tolerance” policies adopted in the 1990s, which required expelling students for certain violations but fell out of favor amid reports of severe punishments for relatively innocuous behavior.
Critics argue that the racial disparity exists even in schools run by predominantly black principals and staff, and that the cure — doing everything possible to avoid suspending or expelling minority kids — has hurt other minority students and pushed schools to adopt illegal race-based discipline quotas under threat of a federal investigation.
In a Jan. 19 study, University of San Diego Law School professor Gail Heriot and Alison Somin argued that the Obama discipline policy had “contributed to the problem of disorderly classrooms, especially in schools with high minority enrollment.”
“Those who cry ‘racism’ at the Trump administration for even considering the repeal of the Dear Colleague letter need to stop and think,” said Ms. Heriot, a U.S. civil-rights commissioner. “Minority students — those who are trying to learn amid increasing classroom chaos — are the primary victims of the Obama-era policy.”
At the December commission hearing, former Obama administration officials argued that “exclusionary discipline” has contributed to the “school to prison pipeline” by depriving students of the tools they need to succeed.
Commissioner Peter Kirsanow asked them to respond to 2014 federal figures showing that 2.8 million students reported missing school in the last 30 days for fear of being assaulted by students in their class.
Former Education Department senior policy adviser Kristen Harper described that as the wrong focus.
“We do ourselves a disservice and really sort of steer the conversation in the wrong direction when we try to say, ‘Well, what is the impact of the disruptive students on the non-disruptive students?’” said Ms. Harper. “Instead, our conversation really should focus on how we support educators and support schools.”