As education leaders, we take our commitment to students and families very seriously, not only to provide them with an excellent education that affords them access to the fullest range of life’s opportunities but also to ensure they are emotionally and physically safe and supported.
That’s why we are dismayed at the Trump administration’s decision to dismantle protections for our most vulnerable students by repealing much-needed federal guidance guarding students from discriminatory discipline practices. This damaging move was announced just before Christmas, even though thousands of teachers and more than 100 educators, advocates, district and state leaders, charter school operators, unions, and other education leaders called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Justice Department to maintain the guidance protecting all students — particularly students of color, students with disabilities, and students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning. Educators are not alone in our concern: DeVos also received letters from a wide swath of groups on this issue, such as state attorneys general and the civil rights community.
Over the past year, DeVos met with teachers from across the country and promised to listen. But the concerns of families and educators clearly fell on deaf ears. Rescinding the guidance without putting forward a concrete plan for schools to end unjust discipline practices is another baffling example of how the Trump administration is abandoning students and families.
The good news is that some schools are pioneering innovative practices — rooted in research — that point the way forward on school discipline:
● Training can help educators build empathy when it comes to student discipline and form productive partnerships with families before incidents occur.
● School staff can help students learn social and emotional skills, such as self-management and conflict de-escalation.
● Administrators can focus on hiring and retaining staff members who build strong, inclusive classroom cultures and who reflect the diversity of students.
● States and systems can provide mental-health professionals, counseling staff and other support systems.
● Schools can introduce alternatives to suspensions — such as restorative circles and in-classroom interventions — that address student behavior and help them learn to make better decisions without excluding them from school.
The problem: Too many of these practices are the exception, not the rule.
While there has been progress, a steady drumbeat of data reveals we have miles to go. A study by the bipartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office last year found persistent racial disparities in student discipline. And the 2015-2016 federal Civil Rights Data Collection showed the same trend. Black students are three and a half times as likely to be suspended from school than their white peers — often for the same behavior as their classmates. Latino students also saw troubling disparities compared with white students. Students with disabilities, who make up about 12 percent of public school students, account for nearly a quarter of students referred to law enforcement, arrested for a school-related incident or suspended.
The consequences of inaction are dire. Students who’ve been suspended just once are three times as likely to be incarcerated later on. Continuing to use biased and harsh discipline with students from historically underserved communities — students who probably already have a mountain to climb to succeed in school and beyond — limits their trajectories in life.
We believe the federal government has an important role to play in safeguarding students’ civil rights, which can be accomplished without stifling state and local decision-making or teachers’ autonomy in their classroom. Without federal action, it can be easy for systems to lose sight of these disparities and their long-term effects. Or schools and systems may choose what’s politically easy and expedient over what’s best for students. Despite this setback, our coalition will continue working in cities and states across the country to effect change — and the federal government must continue to enforce laws that ensure all students have the opportunity to thrive.
We can and must do better. Our students’ futures hang in the balance.
Cami Anderson is the founder of the Discipline Revolution Project.
Layla Avila is CEO and executive director of Education Leaders of Color.
Evan Stone is co-founder and co-CEO of Educators for Excellence.