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Education Department needs to scrap Obama-era school discipline guidelines


Last Friday a group of nine educators traveled to Washington to meet with officials in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Their goal? To convince the OCR to keep Obama-era guidelines for school discipline.

This group claims the Obama guidelines “have helped protect the civil rights of students, in particular children of color and those with disabilities” who are disciplined at greater rates — “disparate impact” — than whites and non-special needs students.

Not-so coincidentally, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings on the same day about the “root causes” of school discipline racial disparities. The commission’s chair, Catherine Lhamon, wrote up the previous administration’s disparate impact recommendations.

“Schools have to avoid writing off children with disabilities and children of color as being born bad, and have to teach them and support them to meet the expectations that we have,” testified attorney Eve Hill, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “We have to eliminate the discrimination underlying that disproportion, reduce the unnecessary use of discipline and, for as long as those discriminatory attitudes exist, reduce the use of exclusionary discipline.”

Ms. Hill claimed the Obama guidelines did not mandate (racial) discipline quotas which her critics allege, and technically she’s correct. But that’s unofficially what school districts did (and why wouldn’t they? Federal government pressure is a big motivator), as her critics have pointed out.

Commissioner Peter Kirsanow brought up the Minneapolis Public Schools as an example. In 2014 the district entered into an agreement with the DoE’s Office for Civil Rights following an investigation into racially disparate discipline statistics. Part of the agreement created a team assembled by the district superintendent which began reviewing every “non-violent” minority student suspension.

Kirsanow called the policy “legally and constitutionally suspect,” and said it would “result in racial quotas for disciplinary actions, with negative consequences for the learning experience of students.” In place of “punitive” measures like suspensions, schools began to adopt methods such as “restorative justice” which includes therapeutic ideas like “talking circles.”

The College Fix has reported on the travails of teachers in Minnesota and elsewhere, and in the former’s case the St. Paul NAACP even joined the fray in support of a (black) teacher facing alleged district retaliation for criticizing racial “bean-counting” discipline rules.

According to a report by Education Week, only three percent of the country’s school districts were ever “identified by their states as having such [racial] disparities” from the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to 2013. That’s when the Government Accountability Office suggested the Department of Education “step in and create a standard approach” for states to use for “determining disproportionality.”

The DoE did just that in 2016, and under its rules — surprise! — almost half of US school districts would be found guilty of engaging in disproportionality.

Last month opponents of the Obama guidelines met with Department of Education OCR officials and, frankly, Secretary DeVos* and crew can’t move quick enough in rescinding the 2014 rules. Legal precedent certainly would appear to favor these critics, especially 1997’s People Who Care v. Rockford Bd. of Education.

“Racial disciplinary quotas violate equity in its root sense,” the ruling states. “They entail either systematically overpunishing the innocent or systematically underpunishing the guilty.

“They place race at war with justice. They teach schoolchildren an unedifying lesson of racial entitlements. And they incidentally are inconsistent with another provision of the decree, which requires that discipline be administered without regard to race or ethnicity.”


UPDATE: This article originally reported that the Trump administration is proposing a two-year delay in the implementation of Obama-era discipline rules. This delay is for a formal regulation regarding racial quotas in special education, not for school discipline guidelines. The article has been edited accordingly.

MORE: Discipline issues reach fever pitch as districts fear racial bean counters

MORE: Obama DoE, liberal leaders a disaster for school discipline

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 20 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.