As the federal commission on school safety headed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos ramps up its schedule of public forums, an unusually broad array of individuals and organizations has sent a letter imploring DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to retain federal guidelines issued by the Obama administration to combat racial disparities in school discipline.
The letter is significant both for its strong defense of students’ civil rights and because the more than 80 signatories include organizations and individuals who are not always allies on key issues.
Among them are prominent charter school organizations, superintendents of some of the nation’s largest school districts (such as Richard Carranza, the newly appointed chancellor of the New York City public schools), parent groups and the American Federation of Teachers. Signatories from California include The Broad Center, Ednovate and Green Dot California.
The commission, which President Donald Trump established following the February massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., convened last Wednesday and heard from mental health and privacy experts regarding how schools can better identify and serve students with mental health issues.
The session was the fourth event organized by the commission since early June and several more are expected as the commission attempts to fulfill its mission to provide Trump with “meaningful and actionable recommendations to keep students safe at school.”
In addition to DeVos and Sessions, the other members of the commission are Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielson and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. It was the first hearing in which all four members attended.
(Click here to view the forum)
Controversy has clouded the commission since its inception, with numerous educators and youth advocates criticizing it for, among other things, not having any educators as members and for its stance on the issue of guns in schools. In June, DeVos told a Senate subcommittee that the commission will not focus on the role guns play in school violence, which many say was a political decision and ignores one of the greatest threats to school safety.
Last week’s letter addresses another key point of contention, which is Trump’s directive that the commission consider repealing the Education Department’s “Rethink Discipline” guidelines, which President Barack Obama’s administration issued in 2014.
Obama’s guidelines, which were outlined in a “Dear Colleague” letter, emphasized alternatives to suspensions and expulsions and highlighted data showing that students of color (particularly African-American boys) and those with disabilities were up to three times as likely as white students to be punished this way, often for similar nonviolent offenses.
“Research shows that exclusionary discipline, such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, can be harmful to students and can negatively impact both their short-term school achievement and long-term life outcomes,” the letter to Trump’s commission states. “This harm, as illuminated by the federal government’s increased efforts to collect, analyze and publish data, shows clear biases in who receives harsh punishments.”
It goes on to state that “the federal government has an important role to play in upholding students’ civil rights and can do so without stifling important local autonomy.”
What will the impact be?
California has been a leader in discipline reform in recent years. The state Legislature in 2014 banned suspensions for “willful defiance,” a category in which racial and ethnic disparities are particularly pronounced, in K-3 grades.
A bill currently being considered in the state Assembly floor would extend the ban of such suspensions to all grades. Several districts — including Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified — have already done so. Also, suspension rates are a statewide indicator of school improvement on the California School Dashboard, the state’s new school accountability system.
If the federal commission does repeal the Obama administration’s guidelines, it won’t affect these and other statewide discipline reforms, said David Kopperud, a consultant in the California Department of Education’s Coordinated Student Support Services Division, in a March interview with EdSource.
“California districts are doing a good job of implementing programs that are alternatives to suspensions, which are still disproportionate but going down for all groups,” Kopperud said. “We will continue to address these issues even if they aren’t emphasized at the federal level…it’s not going away in California.”
However, a repeal of Obama’s guidelines could stall important progress toward protecting the civil rights of children and be a harbinger of worse things to come, said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.
While stressing that the guidelines did not directly change any law or policy, Losen says it did raise awareness regarding discipline disparities and the realities of racism in schools — whether it is overt or the result of unconscious biases. He and other youth and civil rights advocates fear that by rescinding the guidelines, the federal government is sending a message that racist attitudes and actions toward children are not to be taken as seriously.
“I’m worried that they are going to use this safety commission to erode civil rights protections beyond rescinding the guidance,” Losen said. “Let’s not kid ourselves — there are school districts, even in California, where intentionally racist things go on…and it will be harder to challenge those practices.”
Despite these fears, education and civil rights advocates are heartened by the fact that the letter to Trump’s school safety commission was signed by such a diverse group of educators and advocates.
“I think what it does show you is that while we don’t fall on the same side of every argument, everyone who signed that document takes the welfare of children seriously and is willing to come together on things that do make sense for kids,” said Cristina De Jesus, CEO of Green Dot California, a network of 20 charter schools in Los Angeles.
Whether this unusual coalition will have any influence over the school safety commission remains to be seen — and recent actions by the Trump administration indicate that it faces an uphill battle on any issue relating to civil rights. Last week, for example, the administration rescinded a set of Obama-era guidelines on affirmative action in K-12 schools and college campuses.
“There is a sense in the education community that this administration will try to undo anything that has Obama’s name attached it, regardless of the content,” said Alice Cain, executive vice president for Teach Plus, a national nonprofit, with a chapter in Los Angeles, that provides training to teachers. “It’s just a visceral reaction.”
Adding to the challenge for the educators is a lobbying effort by conservative groups that want to see the discipline guidance rescinded. A recent op-ed in the National Review by prominent critics of alternative discipline practices called the Dear Colleague letter “an affront to the separation of powers, federalism and the rule of law.”
“If a school district chooses a policy it should do so because it is the best for students and families, not because Washington D.C. tells them to,” said Jonathan Butcher, a co-author of the op-ed and senior education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
The op-ed also repeated previous claims by Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that the Obama guidance could have played a role in discouraging school officials from referring potentially dangerous students, including Parkland killer Nikolas Cruz, to law enforcement. Many have refuted these claims, pointing to the fact that Cruz was actually expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas when he was a student there.