President Trump greets Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during an event celebrating Women’s History Month last year. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Educators, civil rights activists and politicians favoring the Obama administration’s progressive school discipline policies have a tough fight to protect that effort against the Trump administration’s expected repeal.

President Trump’s marching orders to a commission led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos make it clear that he doesn’t think much of President Barack Obama’s “rethinking discipline” approach to student behavior. That guidance urged educators to consider how certain practices can fuel the school-to-prison pipeline and the harm resulting from student suspensions, and it warned against policies that foster racial and other discrimination.

More than 150 organizations signed a letter to DeVos last month in support of Obama’s policy.

DeVos held separate listening sessions last week with proponents and opponents of the program, the same day that a government report bolstered Obama’s effort. Although DeVos has announced no decision on what the commission will recommend, the direction was essentially mandated by Trump when he formed the commission.

Trump’s White House issued a statement on “hardening our schools” — a phrase that seems incongruous with learning while also a sad commentary on gun violence in America — one month after the Feb. 14 mass killing at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The statement said the commission will study and make recommendations on the “Repeal of the Obama Administration’s ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies.”

That “rethink” is needed because of statistics like those the Government Accountability Office released. “Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) in K-12 public schools,” according to the GAO’s analysis. “These disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended. For example, Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school — an overrepresentation of about 23 percentage points.”

GAO provided examples of school districts that “disciplined Black students more frequently or harshly than similarly situated White students. Specifically, Black students were more than 10 times more likely than White students to receive out-of-school suspension for disorderly conduct” in Kentucky’s Christian County School District in 2014.

Part of the pushback against the Trump administration’s anticipated repeal is a Capitol Hill briefing Wednesday hosted by Virginia Democratic Reps. A. Donald McEachin and Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Their news release said the briefing will focus “on the importance of preserving critical civil rights protections for students in light of recent hostile scrutiny from the Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) demonstrated that hostile scrutiny shortly after the Parkland tragedy by using the Obama guidance as a scapegoat, saying it “may have contributed to systemic failures to report Nikolas Cruz’s dangerous behaviors to local law enforcement.” Cruz is accused of killing 17 people at the high school in the February attack.

Also backing repeal is Max Eden of the conservative Manhattan Institute. He called the guidance “merely a pretext for a systematic and almost entirely secret effort to force school districts to lower their discipline numbers and adopt a new approach. … The federal government ought to have no role in micromanaging school districts’ discipline policies.”

Advocating fair treatment is not micromanaging.

Liz King, director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, complained that the Education Department under Trump and DeVos has already “taken one action after another to make schools less safe for LGBTQ students, sexual assault survivors and any child who experiences systemic discrimination.”

She said the push against a repeal of Obama-era guidance could take several forms: “Where we have members of Congress willing to lend their voice to the cause of justice in our schools, we will work with them. Where we have researchers willing to ask important questions and provide needed answers, we will lift that research up. Where we have youth voices demanding to be heard, we will listen to them. Where the law has been broken and legal remedies are required, we will pursue them.”

Brenda Shum, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the GAO report confirmsthat students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by implicit bias in the administration of schools. While some try to dismiss those findings by claiming that this is attributed to higher rates of behavioral violations by students of color, this is inaccurate. Research shows that racial difference still accounts for a significant percentage of disparate treatment in school discipline even after accounting for other factors which might account for different treatment, such as prior history or socioeconomic status.”

The GAO’s research demonstrated that with this case study from Christian County: “An African American 10th-grader was assigned 1-day out-of-school suspension for skipping school. In comparison, a white 12th-grader was assigned a conference with the principal for skipping school. The African American student had 19 previous disciplinary referrals, while the white student had 28 previous disciplinary referrals. Education [Department officials] reported that it would be difficult for the district to demonstrate how excluding a student from attending school in response to the student’s efforts to avoid school meets an important educational goal.”

Read more: 

Implicit racial bias causes black boys to be disciplined at school more than whites, federal report

Congress rebukes DeVos over her plans to reorganize the Education Department

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