WASHINGTON (AP) — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is reviewing an Obama-era policy that tried to counter racial bias in school discipline and lessen penalties for student infractions. That’s putting a spotlight on what causes disparities in school discipline and how they can be fixed.
Under 2014 guidance, schools were told to review their data to see if penalties like suspension and expulsion were disproportionately affecting African-American students more than white students. They had to correct any disparities or face federal investigations and possible loss of federal funding.
The Obama-era guidance also urged educators to use positive behavior interventions such as counseling, when possible.
On Wednesday, DeVos met behind closed doors with educators who believe that rolling back the Obama rule will further entrench discrimination. Later in the day she planned to meet with opponents who say that softening discipline practices makes schools less safe and prevents effective learning.
Black students are more than three times more likely to be suspended from school and nearly twice as likely to be expelled than white peers, according to a 2016 federal study. Another government study released last month found that black children account for about 16 percent of students but 39 percent of students suspended from school.
But while there’s widespread agreement that disparities in discipline based on race and disability are a serious problem, there’s intense debate over what causes them and how to fix them.
Tynisha Jointer, behavioral health specialist for elementary schools in Chicago, said she told DeVos that positive reinforcement and counseling were more effective in improving students’ behavior and learning than suspension.
“Hands down, positive interventions work best,” Jointer told the AP in a phone interview.
Jointer also said the Obama-era guidance was instrumental in fighting discrimination. She recounted how she visited a public school in Chicago to help counsel an unruly first-grader. Jointer observed him during a PE class and noted that the student, a black boy, was acting out: touching another girl’s hair, not doing warmups and stepping out of line. But she also noticed that during the first 10 minutes of class, the teacher redirected that student six times, while his white peers who also weren’t behaving did not receive the same attention.
“Black students, especially black boys are looked at as deviant and defiant while white students are seen as exploring and testing boundaries,” Jointer said.
Olinka Crusoe, an English as a second language teacher in New York City, had another story to share with Devos.
Crusoe cited the example of a first-grader at her school who would act out during writing time. She and other teachers spent several months trying various approaches until they figured out that giving him a sheet of paper with bigger lines and a bigger pencil solved the problem.
“We tried intervention after intervention after intervention until the student was able to do the work, to just sit and learn,” Crusoe said in an interview before the meeting. The student is now a confident fourth-grader, she said.
But Nicole Stewart said she resigned as vice principal at Lincoln High School in San Diego because she believes the Obama policy made her and other schools dangerous for students and teachers. Stewart said that after her time there, one student brought a knife to school, but was not expelled because his action was attributed to his disability. Two weeks later, he attacked a student with a knife, Stewart said.
“If there are no consequences for actions that are punishable in the real world, then what good are we doing these students,” Stewart said before the meeting.
Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, argues that the guidance should be rescinded because it has made teachers reluctant to discipline students, which has led to disruptions in class, fights and other violent incidents. Petrilli agrees that racial and other biases do contribute to the disparities, but children growing up in poverty and facing trauma are also more likely to misbehave.
“Making progress on this difficult issue is predicated on acknowledging an uncomfortable truth, one that can easily be demagogued,” Petrilli wrote in a recent blog post. “On average, due to a host of factors beyond their own control, including poverty, fatherlessness, and trauma, poor children of color are more likely to misbehave at school than are their peers.”
DeVos’ moves on school discipline follow other decisions on students’ civil rights last year. She rescinded guidance telling schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. She also allowed universities to ask for more evidence from women complaining of sexual assault on campus. DeVos said bathroom rules should be decided at the local level and that the Obama practice of investigating sexual assault was unfair to the accused.
Education Department officials would not say when any decision could be made on any changes in the 2014 school discipline guidelines.
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