DeVos Will Recommend the Removal of Civil Rights Protections for Students of Color

Dec 13, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Laura Waters

Any day now we’re going to hear the news that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration are removing guidance meant to reduce racist discipline practices that run rampant in public schools around the country. It’s no secret that students of color, particularly Black boys, are disproportionately disciplined compared to their White peers— four times as likely according to the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, which is under the education secretary’s purview. And according to the soon-to-be-revoked guidance, which came in the form of a 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter during the Obama administration, Black boys comprise only 15 percent of all students but represent 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and 36 percent of students expelled. A story comes to mind. Near my home in New Jersey, just outside of Trenton, there is an affordable housing complex called Eggerts Crossing Village where residents are mostly Black and low-income. The schoolchildren there are bused to district schools and a few years ago teachers at the elementary school reported that these students arrived in an unruly manner, especially the boys, and ended up in the principal’s office. In response, a nonprofit called Every Child Valued, with a mission to improve the academic outcomes of Eggerts Crossing Village children (I’m on the board), got a grant. This grant, among other things, jump-started a program in the community center of the housing complex that provides breakfast every school morning to children before they board the buses, as well as an opportunity to practice social skills. Within a few months teachers at the elementary school reported that the children were exiting the bus cheerfully and discipline problems had sharply decreased. The problem: misbehavior, disproportionately among Black boys, who faced a disparate impact of school disciplinary policies. The solution: full stomachs and camaraderie. Was that so hard? Apparently the answer is “yes,” at least for Betsy DeVos, who is on a streak of rescinding civil rights guidance created by the Obama administration. Earlier in her tenure she revoked guidance for fair treatment of transgender students, victims of sexual assault on college campuses and children with special needs. Now she’s about to rescind the 2014 letter, which itself offers copious advice and resources that help schools avoid racial disciplinary disparities. It explains disparate impact. It helps schools decide, with the aid of flow charts, whether particular disciplinary decisions are educationally necessary, and, if so, counsels schools to consider comparatively effective approaches to suspensions and expulsions. President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, were profoundly aware of the school-to-prison pipeline, a national trend where children, mostly of color, are funneled from public schools into the juvenile and criminal justice system. [pullquote]President Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos seem to care more about placating their conservative base than constructive counsel and commonsense solutions[/pullquote] (breakfast!) that help our most vulnerable kids. Sometimes these disparities are intentional—a school official uses a racial slur or a district bars a specific item of clothing that only children of one race wear. These are straightforward civil rights violations. But it gets trickier when the disparities are unintentional—the letter offers multiple helpful examples like a school imposing different disciplinary sanctions on two students, one Hispanic and one non-Hispanic, who committed similar infractions—and it is those instances that the letter addresses.

The Conservative Campaign

Here’s where we swerve from civil rights protections to ideology, supplemented with fearmongering and a dearth of solid evidence. Apparently DeVos was courted by members of what Chalkbeat calls “the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools.” For instance, the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Hans Bader claims that the Obama administration’s emphasis on alternatives to suspensions and expulsions led to kids “threatening teachers and setting classmates’ hair on fire.” Similarly, Katherine Kersten wrote a criticism of the Obama guidance in City Journal called, “ No Thug Left Behind” (the racism in the headline speaks for itself). Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute says that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s discipline policies are making New York City schools more dangerous, again with little evidence to tie any perceived danger to the policies he’s decrying. (Hat-tip to Peter Cunningham: Eden is wrong.) And, while I admire the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, I’m put off by his push to remove the language related to disparate impact from the guidance. He justifies this “compromise” by equating skin color to socio-economic status, creating an inherently inequitable “solution.” He writes: “As African-Americans are three times more likely to grow up in poverty as White students, we would expect to see racial differences in student behavior, just as we see racial differences in achievement—which are not driven by race, but by socioeconomic differences.” Yes, students of color are disproportionately poor, but Petrilli rationalizes American schools’ deplorable history of subjecting them to harsher disciplinary measures by saying that “racial disparities” in discipline are a result of “differences in student behavior,” which stem from “differences in socioeconomic circumstances.” What—Black and Brown and poor kids are innately poorly-behaved? [pullquote position="right"]Discrimination by any other name is still discrimination.[/pullquote]

“School Safety” as a Red Herring

If you think I’m overstating the politics involved in DeVos’ recission, there’s this: In the heated weeks after the Stoneman Douglas massacre, as the right was scrambling to turn attention away from nationwide cries for gun reform, DeVos helmed the School Safety Commission, which quickly changed the subject from firearms to school discipline. Some attempted to link the Parkland shooter to alternative discipline policies that sought to reduce student encounters with law enforcement, and it was an easy jump to then connect that with the 2014 guidance. Of course, the Parkland shooter never even attended the district’s successful-but-maligned restorative justice program. But let’s not get bogged down in facts: Betsy DeVos, as chair of this commission, will make a recommendation to herself, as secretary of education, to rescind the Obama guidance. We all want our children protected from violence. We all (OK, I’m reaching here) want to protect children of color, as well as low-income children, from prejudicial and disproportionate disciplinary decisions that all too often end in academic failure and a ticket to the school-to-prison pipeline. The elementary school children in Eggerts Crossing Village, predominantly low-income Black boys, were at risk of becoming part of that doomed demographic. But [pullquote]a simple and effective alternative—breakfast and cheery company—appears to have altered that trajectory.[/pullquote] Betsy DeVos doesn’t need to rescind the Obama guidance. She needs to do her job: support school districts in creating welcoming classrooms for all students, where they build social and emotional competencies and feel engaged with learning. Oh, and while she’s at it, perhaps she should continue to provide guidance that helps schools comply with civil rights law. But at this point, that’s not likely to happen. Maybe she just needs a good breakfast and different company.

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 all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, where she was president for nine of those years. Early in her career, she taught writing to low-income students of color at SUNY Binghamton through an Educational Opportunity Program.

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