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Student Discipline Should Be Left Up to Teachers, Not to Washington

July 9, 2018

by Jonathan Butcher
July 9, 2018

Last week, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos suspended two Obama-era rules so her team can reconsider the policies. No stranger to reversing the previous administration’s regulations, DeVos made headlines last fall when her office rescinded Obama administration rules regarding sexual assault on campus (an important action that gave students better due process protections).

As Max Eden from the Manhattan Institute and my Heritage Foundation colleague Lindsey Burke and I explained in National Review, DeVos should now turn her attention to invasive Obama-era student discipline directives that research demonstrates can harm student achievement.

In 2014, former President Barack Obama’s Departments of Justice and Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to district and charter schools. The letter said the Office of Civil Rights would proactively look for district and charter schools that discipline minority students at higher rates than their peers and conduct investigations.

But the letter was more than a call to protect students’ civil rights. The document also contained instructions on how to discipline students and use suspensions and expulsions (called “exclusionary discipline”) as a “last resort.”

After the tragedy in Broward County, Florida earlier this year when a troubled teen took the lives of 17 students and faculty, the Trump administration appointed DeVos to lead a committee that would investigate rescinding the 2014 guidance. Why? Because Broward’s school discipline policies (called “PROMISE”) mirror the federal letter.

Both the federal letter and PROMISE say school personnel should limit out-of-school suspensions, provide alternatives to exclusionary discipline, practice restorative justice (where the accused confront the accusers), and have a formal agreement with law enforcement to limit student interaction with the juvenile justice system.

Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie said in 2014 that “the Obama administration might have taken our policies and framework and developed them into national guidelines.”

Runcie also said the Trump administration’s decision to consider a repeal of the letter after the Broward disaster “goes with the whole narrative that anything under the Obama administration is no good and we have to get rid of it.”

Yet after claiming for weeks that the Broward tragedy and PROMISE were unrelated, Runcie finally admitted that the accused shooter had been referred to PROMISE in middle school. And Runcie admitted that school officials did not have any details about the accused shooter’s participation in PROMISE activities or if there was any follow-up.

Washington should discuss the efficacy of PROMISE-style policies, then, after Parkland. Due to the federal letter, dozens of school systems around the U.S. are using similar approaches. Research on Los Angeles schools—early adopters of limiting exclusionary discipline—finds that limiting suspensions harms student achievement. A study of Philadelphia schools had similar results.

Last month, the Goldwater Institute joined the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and nearly a dozen other state research organizations calling on DeVos to rescind the letter. DeVos should give teachers and school personnel back the ability to manage student behavior in the best interest of students without looking over their shoulders for Washington’s approval. The federal government should not be second-guessing teachers’ decisions on how to maintain order in the classroom.

Just because a school suspends or expels minority students at lower rates than in prior years does not mean a school is safer or a better place for students to learn. One of the co-authors of our aforementioned NRO piece, Max Eden, found that surveys of teachers and students in New York City reported worse school climates (in terms of order, discipline, and “mutual respect”) when the city began requiring school personnel to get permission from administrators to suspend students in 2014-15. Fewer suspensions were the result of the policy, but individuals did not report that schools were safer.

Seven months after Parkland, DeVos’s committee still hasn’t rescinded the 2014 letter. The secretary has experience rolling back questionable policies from the prior administration. She should return to teachers and school leaders the ability to protect students and use their best judgement without fear of federal investigation.

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.



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