Over the past several weeks there has been much discussion around how school discipline policies can ensure a safe and supportive climate where children can learn. While there are many different approaches, everyone agrees that discrimination against any student is abhorrent and wrong. Federal laws prohibit such discrimination in our nation’s schools, and the Department’s Office for Civil Rights vigorously enforces these civil rights laws to ensure equal access to education.
According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, African-American students are subject to exclusionary discipline (such as suspensions or expulsions) at higher rates than white students. The data show similar patterns for other groups: for example, boys are suspended more often than girls, as are students with disabilities when compared to students without disabilities. It was in response to this data that the prior administration issued a Dear Colleague Letter, or federal guidance, to states and school districts instructing them to adopt new approaches to school discipline so as to ensure that these students are not disproportionately impacted. Many in the education community cheered this guidance as a positive step.
But since the guidance was released, many educators, parents and students have raised concerns that schools have actually become less safe by restricting teachers’ and administrators’ ability to maintain order in their classrooms. They claim that the guidance ignores the law and places statistics over students without addressing the behavior of individual students and how educators should respond and discipline students when necessary. They view the guidance as creating an unsafe environment that has harmed learning.
That’s why earlier this week the Department hosted two listening sessions about the 2014 guidance. We brought in teachers, parents, students, administrators, researchers, advocates and union representatives to hear their varying views on whether the guidance should be kept as is, amended or rescinded.
We heard powerful testimony from many individuals. One teacher from Massachusetts told us about the economically distressed community in which she teaches, and how out-of-school suspensions could put students in a dangerous environment with little oversight. A school district representative from Illinois described how implementation of social-emotional learning practices in her district helped students learn to settle their differences without violence, and helped foster a nurturing school environment, which they may not experience at home.
Yet one teacher from North Carolina described how the district’s change in discipline policies imposed severe constraints on teachers’ abilities to control their classrooms. Order in the classroom quickly deteriorated, making it impossible for students to learn. This teacher noted that the unsafe climate in schools caused many teachers to leave the profession in the last few years, further hurting students’ ability to learn and grow.
Another teacher from New York described how students would regularly threaten their peers and teachers, but school administrators would not allow students to be disciplined, citing the need to reduce the number of suspensions. A former administrator from California told us that after her district changed its discipline policies, schools would send kids home informally to avoid impacting the schools’ suspension rates.
These listening sessions made clear that while progress is being made for some students and educators, the situation for others has worsened. We as a country cannot be satisfied until all students have access to a safe and nurturing learning environment where they can grow and thrive. As a country, we must honor that promise to our nation’s students.
Betsy DeVos is the U.S. Secretary of Education