It now looks like the Trump administration’s repeal of Obama-era guidelines allowing transgender students to use the school bathroom of their preference was just the beginning of a long list of regulatory reversals including efforts to ensure school discipline practices don’t discriminate against students by race or disability and disproportionally push students into a school-to-prison pipeline.
Recently, Politico broke the news that officials in Trump’s department of education led by Secretary Betsy DeVos seem ready to scrap Obama-era guidance that compel schools to end zero-tolerance discipline policies and curb widespread tendencies to use out-of-school suspensions disproportionally on black and brown school children and students with disabilities.
In a meeting coordinated by rightwing think tanks, according to Education Week, high-level officials in DeVos’s department heard a one-sided presentation by critics of the Obama guidelines and gave little indication of wanting to get all sides of the debate.
Alarmed by the news that the Trump administration might end valuable civil rights protections for their students, concerned teachers generated an outpouring of 500 emails demanding their voices be heard, according to education media outlet The 74. Nine of those teachers organized by teacher-created advocacy group Educators for Excellence flew to D.C. to meet with education department officials to argue for maintaining the discipline guidelines.
No doubt, these teachers reminded DeVos and her department that discipline guidelines put in place by the Obama administration were for very good reasons.
Civil and youth rights advocates have long argued that school discipline practices were out of control and leading to negative life consequences for students, especially among black and brown student populations and students with learning disabilities.
Studies have long shown a high correlation of harsh, zero-tolerance discipline practices and out-of-school suspensions to eventual involvement in the criminal justice system. A 2011 study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that being suspended or expelled from school made a student nearly three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system within the next year.
A 2015 report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that out-of-school suspensions are disproportionally used on students of color and students with disabilities. In the most recent year with available data, 16 percent of black students and 7 percent of Latino students were suspended, while the rate for white students was 5 percent. Students with disabilities had suspension rates that were two to three times their peers.
As harsh, discriminatory discipline policies proliferated, counselors and other support staff have become scarcer. According to a recent study from the Center for American Progress, nearly 35 million children in the U.S. live with emotional and psychological trauma, yet “only a fraction of these students—approximately 8 million of them—have access to a school psychologist. Even fewer students have access to a social worker. Across the nation, only 63 percent of public schools even offer all students a counselor.”
The Obama administration began to take action to curb the use of harsh, discriminatory discipline practices in 2014, The Atlantic reports, when Attorney General Eric Holder and-Education Secretary Arne Duncan the Obmama administration’s first set of discipline guidelines that urged an end to zero-tolerance policies, called attention to the disproportionate use of suspensions and expulsions on students of color and students with disabilities, and urged schools to seek alternatives practices.
As a result of these guidelines, The Atlantic article explains, many large school districts – including Los Angeles, Denver, Baltimore, Miami, and Bridgeport, Connecticut – put into place discipline practices designed to move away from using suspensions and expulsions and emphasize positive behavior interventions, such as restorative justice, which focuses on repairing harm and engaging all stakeholders in the behavior issues. Other schools have invested in additional supports, including school counselors and interventions targeting the emotions and feelings that cause misbehavior instead of on the behavior itself.
The impact of these guidelines is not yet clear. Stark disparities still exist in how out-of-school suspensions are disproportionally aimed at marginalized students. And nearly every day brings a news report spotlighting an incident of overly harsh response to a school behavior situation.
Yet educators in many places report that alternative practices prompted by the Obama guidelines are better than what they were using. And in many situations when alternatives to suspensions don’t seem to work, there’s often an implementation problem, such as a lack of training, an unwillingness to follow the model with fidelity, or a lack of time in the school day to address misbehavior in more constructive ways.
Nevertheless, DeVos and her department seem intent on undermining the Obama protections put into place. The rationale for regulation cutting is that the rules may be “unnecessary” or overly “costly.” But they’re only unnecessary and costly when they don’t apply to you.