Betsy’s Blog: Listening Sessions on School Safety and Climate

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and union representatives to hear their varying views on whether the guidance should be kept as is, amended or rescinded.

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