A recent op-ed and a law professor’s rebuttal offer a glimpse into current tension around the US Department of Education’s position on schoolwide discipline.

Background: In 2014 the US Department of Education (DoE) sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to all states and districts advising them that they were vulnerable to federal investigation if they did not correct racially disparate suspension and expulsion rates and encouraging them to undertake remedies. Districts scrambled to respond, some more effectively than others. Now, the DeVos administration is considering rescinding this guidance.

Last month, an opinion piece on Bloomberg.com encouraged the DoE to withdraw their guidance and let schools and districts manage their discipline policies without oversight – despite clear evidence that prior to the 2014 guidance, African American students and other groups were (and in many cases still are) more likely to receive heavier punishment for the same offenses than white students, and to be suspended at a higher rate.

The op-ed decried what it called “relaxed” discipline that has resulted from the federal guidance and claimed that schools are causing harm to “good” kids when suspensions and expulsions are reduced.

University of South Carolina law professor Derek W. Black responded that the piece misses the mark.

First, it is most certainly a civil rights matter when there are racial disparities in how policies are applied, and there is most definitely a role for the federal government to be sure this does not happen.

Second, Black argues, although the Bloomberg piece touches on a truth by asserting that simply stopping or limiting suspensions can harm students’ education, this occurs when a school does not at the same time reform its discipline policies based on positive behavioral support and programs based in restorative practices. No one versed in these issues would advocate for simple limits or bans without the corresponding reforms.

Engaging Schools has been doing this work with schools for many years and our book, Shifting Gears, explains how. We work with schools to help them recalibrate their policies, systems, and practices to shift to a restorative and accountable approach. We emphasize that professional learning for staff is essential to help them provide effective supports and restorative interventions.

Based on research, Black builds a strong case for the way a punitive school climate is detrimental to all students and adults.

  • Regular school exclusion (suspensions and expulsions) create a perception of authoritarianism for all students, not just those excluded.
  • A harsh disciplinary environment creates a negative feedback loop such that the general student body can become more fearful and disillusioned and act out.
  • A negative school climate combines with escalating misbehavior to drive down academic achievement in the non-suspended.
  • A negative climate contributes to teacher absence and attrition, which contributes in turn to a decline in academic achievement for all students.

“With all things being equal [i.e. controlling for race, socio-economics, and school type],” Black says, “academic achievement is lower in schools with higher suspension rates.”

Black makes his final point in rebuttal to the Bloomberg op-ed by saying that “school discipline is about school quality; they are inseparable. Non-punitive approaches to discipline that emphasize positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior and early individualized interventions for students showing signs of misbehavior become a strategy to improve overall educational outcomes.”

The 2014 federal guidance is only just now taking hold and producing the desired outcome as states, districts, and schools develop better discipline and support systems. We are deeply concerned about what will happen if the DoE removes it.


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