Opponents and supporters of Obama-era guidance aimed at reducing disparities in how schools discipline students gathered with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Wednesday to voice their positions in separate “listening sessions” that were closed to the press.
In the morning session, educators argued that the guidance related to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act — which states that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) will investigate complaints of discipline policies and practices that discriminate based on students’ “personal characteristics” — should be maintained and that it improves school safety.
“We are unable to teach without supportive school culture and supportive school communities,” Nina Leuzzi, who teaches pre-K at Bridge Boston Charter School, said in a telephone press briefing following the first session. “Keeping this guidance in place restates the law. For me, without the discipline guidance there are students that would have been expelled.”
Olinka Crusoe, an elementary teacher in New York City, added that as a new teacher she focused primarily on lesson planning and academics and handled discipline matters with “reactive solutions instead of proactive planning.” The guidance, she says, sends a “clear message” that students “deserve a place where they feel safe and they are known by their name and they are known by their strengths.”
Recent data by the ED’s Office for Civil Rights shows that while out-of-school suspensions overall have declined across the U.S., black and Hispanic students are still three times more likely to be suspended than white students, and that students of color attend schools with a greater police presence, which creates what is often referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
DeVos has indicated she is considering rescinding the guidance, which some educators and conservatives argue has led to more disruptive behavior in schools and limits school leaders’ ability to make decisions about discipline at the local level. ED spokesman Nathan Bailey said on the call that no policy decisions have been made and that officials are working with the DOJ to make their decision.
Even in some schools that are implementing alternative discipline strategies, administrators say they want the flexibility to suspend students if they feel that’s the best option in a particular case. Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, DC, for example, offers a peer court class in which students try “cases” of students with minor behavior infractions, but Richard Pohlman, the school’s principal, said in this WAMU story that he is opposed to proposed limits on suspensions in DC schools for K-8 students because he needs the option of suspensions for “unique circumstances.”
Some suggest guidance contributes to 'chaotic environments'
During the second press briefing, Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute said DeVos heard from "the silent majority" of those who argue that when federal officials "threaten" school leaders to reduce the number of disabled and minority students that are suspended or expelled they either don't handle or don't "record troubling, sometimes violent behavior." He added that the federal government should not be telling school districts what policies to adopt.
The briefing included Nicole Stewart, a former vice principal at Lincoln High School in San Diego, where she says a disabled, nonverbal student was sexually assaulted, but the school recorded the incident as an "obscene act." She talked about a teacher's aide who was extremely frustrated by how the school handled the situation and later committed suicide.
"How do we expect our kids or our students to learn to respect the rights of others and obey the laws?" Stewart asked. "We are not modeling what consequences look like in the real world."
Annette Albright, who worked at Harding University High School in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, said the guidance "has done more harm than good. It is impossible for teachers to teach in chaotic environments. It is also impossible for students learn in chaotic settings."
On the earlier call, Leuzzi expressed agreement with those types of statements, saying that some educators at the local level might misinterpret the guidance and that educators need support in using programs such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which focuses on setting school-wide behavior expectations and includes more targeted services to students with behavior problems.
"Oftentimes the implementation is where things start to fray," she said.
Some advocates feeling 'shut out'
The two sessions were held as part of DeVos’ work as chair of the federal Commission on School Safety, which was formed in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, in February. The commission Includes the heads of other federal agencies that impact school safety issues, but multiple organizations and advocates for open government and press access have criticized the administration’s approach to these meetings.
A statement from the National Women’s Law Center, for example, said that “despite the diverse stakeholders this topic affects, key voices that represent students uniquely and disproportionately affected by discriminatory discipline have been shut out.”
Bailey said that Wednesday’s sessions were closed to protect the privacy of those speaking. But Nicole Landers, one of the participants who opposes the policy guidance talked about her daughter’s experiences in a Tuesday Washington Times article. Her 11-year-old daughter, who Landers says in the article was sexually harassed by a boy at her Baltimore school, was also expected to be at the session.