Laura Waters

Betsy DeVos on the Verge of Removing Civil Rights Protections for Students of Color

Let’s just call her Betsy DeVoid. Our secretary of education earns a name-change because of her predilection for voiding guidance that protects our most disenfranchised students. First, it was dropping guidance that protected the right of transgender students to use the bathrooms aligned with their gender identity. Next on the list was nixing protections for victims of sexual assault on college campuses. Then she came for the kids with disabilities. As I wrote previously, children like my own son were protected by decades’ worth of carefully crafted guidelines that were unceremoniously dismissed last fall, en masse. Still hanging in the balance is the Obama administration’s school discipline guidance from 2014, also based on civil rights law, that encourages districts to address the wide disproportionality in suspensions and expulsions for students of color compared with White students.

Haters Gonna Hate

Some education observers have been going in for the kill, urging DeVos to throw out that 2014 guidance entirely. They decry the 2014 discipline guidance as an example of federal overreach, even calling it “misguided” and counter-productive. The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Hans Bader told Breitbart News that the guidance has led to an increase in school violence and that “students are escaping discipline for things like threatening teachers and setting classmates’ hair on fire.” They’re wrong. The guidance, which was jointly issued by the Departments of Justice and Education in the form of a "Dear Colleague" letter, addresses our school system’s long history of punishing Black and Brown students at far higher rates than White students who commit the same infractions. As of 2014, Black students were suspended at a rate three times that of White students. Though Black students represented only 16 percent of public school students, they accounted for 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest. The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights found that African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated White students. In short they concluded, “racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”

It's Like Water Torture

DeVos’ continued threat to repeal or replace the school discipline guidance reflects her denial of reality or, more likely, an indulgence of the administration's political credo that diminution of federal oversight trumps equity. Perhaps even DeVos is aware of the ensuing outcry among progressive educators and civil rights advocates should she scrap the guidance. To give political cover, the right has played upon the public's concerns for school safety, falsely and insidiously connecting the discipline guidance to the continued rise of school shootings, as my colleague Peter Cunningham points out. Meanwhile, DeVos has slow-walked the decision process into a national tour with her school safety committee. Mike Petrilli, head of the right-leaning Fordham Institute, helpfully offers a “compromise”: Why not just take out that part of the guidance that mentions the "disparate impact" of suspensions and expulsions on kids of color? Because that would be no compromise. It would be an evisceration of exactly the sort of protections that called for an Office for Civil Rights in the first place. A civil rights law is only as good as its enforcement, and that's what the guidance seeks to do—prevent schools and districts from breaking the law.

It Affects Us All

For me, this hits close to home, because repealing the discipline guidance would be particularly disastrous for children of color who have disabilities. To see how the dangerous interplay between racial bias and disabilities works, let’s start with an example that involves no racial bias. Say you’re a teacher who has a vision-impaired student in your classroom. If this student trips over an obstacle in his path, do you reprimand him for being clumsy? Do you send him to the principal’s office if he falls again? Not likely. You accommodate his disability by ensuring that pathways remain clear and he has access to his cane, guide dog or aide. That’s an easy one, though, so let’s kick it up a notch. How about Isaiah? A preschooler, Isaiah would race around the room and push classmates if they came too close to him during the sounding of fire alarms. As a result, teachers labeled him as “defiant and aggressive, which led to a painful cycle of overstimulation, disruptive behavior, removal from class, fear and loneliness.” What Isaiah’s school failed to confront was that he had global developmental delays and was easily overstimulated, which caused his behavior. And what if Isaiah is Black? The chance for his “defiant” behavior to be misinterpreted just skyrocketed. Now let’s get personal. My son Jonah, who has a genetic mutation called Fragile X Syndrome, once pushed me to the ground as I dragged him from an elevator while waiting for a train in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Seeing this, a sweet old lady leaned over to whisper in my ear, “That child has the devil in him.” Was Jonah a hellion destined for damnation? Or was he simply manifesting symptoms of sensory integration disorder and anxiety? Further, if I imagine that Jonah has brown skin and exhibits such behavior in a school environment, the likelihood of his being improperly suspended or expelled increases exponentially. And that's not only a ticket into the school-to-prison pipeline, it's a violation of civil rights law. In fact, in the waning hours of the Obama administration, then-Secretary John B. King shepherded through helpful guidance on racial discrimination in special education, as well as guidance on the overuse of restraint and seclusion of children with disabilities. How long before they come for those? https://educationpost.org/devos-is-stripping-away-civil-rights-protections-for-students-with-special-needs/
Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

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