Educators Take Center Stage at Betsy DeVos' Summit on School Discipline

Apr 5, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, hosted a summit yesterday on school safety and climate so that she could hear from people— including educators—who have been vocal about the issue of school discipline. Each side—essentially those who want DeVos to preserve what is commonly known in edu-world as the Obama-era guidance and those who want her to rescind it—had 90 minutes to meet with the secretary and make their case. DeVos has recently come under renewed pressure to rescind the guidance by lawmakers and conservative education folks, some of whom believe that it is—or could be—partly to blame for Nikolas Cruz seemingly falling through the cracks prior to his deadly attack on his former high school in Parkland, Florida. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, already [pullquote position="right"]existing debates over school discipline and the role of law enforcement in schools have gotten louder. And uglier.[/pullquote] While edu-world has been knee deep in this conversation since the Obama administration took a stand on the issue in 2014, the tragedy at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School has been like catnip for TV commentators and even elected leaders looking to shift the narrative away from guns. The problem is that their level of expertise on the issue of school discipline policy is basically zero. The good news is that there are folks in the education space who actually know a great deal about the issue of school discipline policy and while their opinions may differ, they are well versed in the main issue at hand at the summit: the Obama-era guidance. This guidance was borne out of concern over the disproportionate suspension rates of Black and Latino students as well as special education students and it included a “Dear Colleague” letter that put school districts on notice that evidence of excessive and disparate discipline could subject them to an investigation by the Office of Civil Rights. Predictably, as with any action taken by a presidential administration, there are passionate supporters and detractors and the Obama-era guidance—especially the “Dear Colleague” letter—are no exception. Mike Petrilli of the Fordham institute encapsulated it well when he wrote, “For progressives, it taps into deeply held beliefs about fairness and justice. And for conservatives, it taps into deeply held beliefs about order and safety.” But the voices that are far too often missing from the heated Twitter battles and op-ed pages are those for whom school discipline policies are an everyday reality: teachers.

What Teachers Are Saying

According to one teacher who attended the summit yesterday, DeVos seemed particularly interested in what educators had to say. Unsurprisingly, especially at such a polarized time in America as this, these professionals on the front lines of dealing with student behavior are far from being of one mind when it comes to how schools should address the very complex issue of student discipline. While some are fervent supporters of the Obama-era guidance, others have seen their schools collapse into chaos and believe that the decline is directly related to that 2014 guidance out of Washington. Both views were front and center during the roundtable discussion with DeVos on Wednesday. Olinka Crusoe is an elementary school teacher in New York City who supports the Obama-era guidance. She readily admits that early in her teaching career she relied on what she knew and and that was removing disruptive students from her classroom. They’d come back. She’d respond by removing them again. Nothing improved and it was impossible to build relationships with the students because no trust had been established. But after working hard to get to know the students—their strengths and their needs—and receiving training on how to be proactive in supporting their ability to navigate challenging situations, she now believes that removing a student from the classroom has to be a last resort. “I want my students in school,” Crusoe said. “I want them to learn the skills they need to manage their emotions and behavior during challenging situations. They need to be in schools to learn that.” Annette Albright, a former behavior modification technician at Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, does not support the Obama-era guidance. She was physically assaulted by three students and while the video of the violent attack is hard to watch, her school administration accused her of “provoking” the attack. And then they fired her. She and others believe that the students were not held to account because the district was already under investigation by the Office For Civil Rights and was at risk of losing federal dollars. Albright, who is Black, does not support lowering behavioral expectations for children of color but she believes that is precisely what has happened in the district where she used to work. Nicole Stewart of San Diego agrees with Albright. She resigned as vice principal at Lincoln High School in San Diego, California, precisely because of what she saw as the fallout of the Obama-era guidance. She believes that it had reached the point where [pullquote position="right"]teachers at the school were being kept in the dark when it came to discipline.[/pullquote] The way she sees it, they were left with no other option but to ignore classroom behaviors and incidents. Tynisha Jointer, a behavioral health specialist for Chicago Public Schools, welcomes the guidance and wants it to remain in place. She is convinced that, at least in Chicago, schools that are experiencing chaos have a building-leader problem and that to lay the blame at the feet of a “Dear Colleague” letter from the Obama administration is misguided. She does believe that all educators need to take a look at themselves and reflect on the biases that they may be bringing into their buildings. But she did say, “If we’re going to scrap it, let’s replace it with something that puts relationships at the forefront of how we respond to undesirable behavior. Whether it’s the teacher, the school resource officer or the principal, the relationships make all the difference and are vital to building trust and improving student behavior.” And Nina Leuzzi, a pre-K teacher in Boston, says that the Obama-era guidance has helped her take into account the whole child in front of her—their experience, their trauma and their needs—and react more appropriately. As far as she is concerned, “[pullquote position="left"]suspensions are not tools for teachers because they do not educate.[/pullquote] Training is a tool for teachers.”

There's a Reason The Guidance Was Written

The Obama administration’s concern over disparate discipline rates was well-founded and based on the the information gleaned from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). In a strange twist of timing, their concerns were confirmed in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that was released yesterday—literally during the roundtable with DeVos—that could ultimately overshadow that event. In its analysis of the 2013-14 school year, the most recent year for which there is data, the GAO found that Black students, boys and students with disabilities are disciplined at higher rates than their White peers without disabilities. The disparities were greatest for Black students and persisted regardless of socioeconomic class. The Department of Education began the CRDC in 1968 and as of February of 2014, every public school and district in America is required to provide data. The data included goes far beyond discipline rates and has cast an important light on glaring inequities in our schools to include access to AP courses and IB programs, access to school counselors, and the availability of high-level math and science courses. Teacher and student absenteeism data is also collected. But a central tenet of the Obama-era guidance, in addition to disparities around race, was that special education students have the right to equal treatment in school. And a story, also out of Lincoln High School in San Diego, may be evidence that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions. When a non-verbal child with cerebral palsy is raped in the bathroom at school by another student and the confession of the perpetrator as well as eyewitness testimony are kept secret from the mother of the victim, something has gone very wrong. Add to that a change to how an offense is officially documented in the books to avoid expulsion, and one has to wonder what is driving the actions of the district. According to a story by Mario Koran in Voice of San Diego, “sexual misconduct— defined by the district as 'attempting to commit or committing a sexual assault or battery'—is one of five offenses for which school principals must recommend students be expelled. Nearly a month later, however, the school’s vice principal documented the incident differently. She labeled the offense an 'obscene act.' The school does not expel students for that.” But it seems like a stretch to directly blame the guidance for the egregious mishandling of serious offenses—and crimes—by administrators and district officials in cases of violence. While it’s true they may feel pressure to keep their suspension and expulsion numbers down as a result of the “Dear Colleague” letter, the guidance does include specific language about the need to “train personnel to distinguish between disciplinary infractions appropriately handled by school officials versus major threats to school safety or serious school-based criminal conduct…and how to contact law enforcement when warranted.” The truth is, all of the educators who testified at the school safety and climate summit yesterday likely agree far more than they disagree but their conclusions about the Obama-era guidance are informed by their very different experiences.

Not Speaking the Same Language

While some are focused on disproportionate suspensions for defiance, profanity and dress code violations, others have witnessed and/or experienced assault, rape and students showing up at school with weapons. This wide range of behavioral infractions and in some cases, crimes, is indicative of the likely fact that teachers—and others who feel strongly about the Obama-era guidance—may not even be speaking the same language. A message from Washington can become pretty garbled as it makes its way down to the school district level and administrators have certainly been known to change course and even cook the books when they feel pressure—real or perceived—to keep those numbers down. On the other hand, the relationships that adults build with students can be the best defense against undesirable student behavior and can be the perfect antidote to the toxic power struggles that ensue far too often between teachers and students and often result in outsized punitive responses. Regardless of where Betsy DeVos lands on the Obama-era guidance, it’s clear that she’d be wise to keep her communication going with those on the front lines—teachers—if she wants to make smart decisions that will actually have a positive impact and make America’s schools more equitable and just places for all students.

Erika Sanzi

Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting fellow.

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