Once again, Betsy DeVos is attempting to rescind Obama-era guidance on education issues. This time, she’s proposing a rollback of guidelines developed to reduce racialized discipline disparities in schools.
Black and brown children — especially if they are disabled — are disproportionately subjected to discipline in schools.
And critics argue that this reality feeds the school-to-prison pipeline – sometimes very directly. Schools may refer students to law enforcement for discipline, and some may keep armed officers on campus as “security.” When kids are targeted for suspension and expulsion at higher rates, the disadvantage often spills over into adulthood.
The Obama guidelines focused on moving away from punitive measures and developing more positive approaches to behavioral problems on campus. The federal government argued that discipline disparities constitute a civil rights violation and that schools need to take measures to ensure students are treated equally — regardless of gender, race or disability status. They also placed a heavy emphasis on keeping students in school and promoting safe, supportive learning environments — not referring students elsewhere for discipline.
This policy shift is taking place alongside the national gun violence debate, and that’s not a coincidence. Some “law and order” conservatives believe that having armed officers — or teachers — in schools will make it easier to respond to gun violence, keeping children safer. They also argue that tough disciplinary protocol, like the zero tolerance policies that tend to create extreme racial disparities, can improve school safety.
But if these guidelines are overturned, schools won’t have access to the wealth of resources that were previously included. That’s unfortunate, as the Department of Education worked extensively to create tools that could connect people with information and organizations for support when changing their disciplinary practices. In addition to mitigating racial disparities, these shifts in thinking about discipline were also designed to help struggling kids stay in school, rather than abandoning them to the legal system.
Schools are using principles like trauma-informed care, restorative justice and positive behavioral interventions and supports to meet students where they are when discipline problems arise. These measures focus on learning why students are acting out and working together to develop a solution that resolves the problem. This approach can help the student deal with underlying issues, while protecting the safety and functionality of the learning environment. Using these tools can generate very real results, and the Department of Education proposal could set districts back in time.
Of course, Betsy DeVos isn’t the only one looking to school discipline to resolve the gun problem. Senator Marco Rubio just introduced a bill that would penalize school districts that maintain a policy of not reporting disciplinary actions to law enforcement unless it’s strictly necessary. Such districts have taken this approach in order to reduce the risk of negative interactions between students and law enforcement, arguing that they can handle most basic discipline needs on campus, while still leaving crimes to police.
Of course, the real solution to the crisis of U.S. gun violence, including school shootings, doesn’t lie with schools and how they make disciplinary decisions. It lies in the ready availability of weapons capable of discharging large numbers of high velocity rounds very quickly — and a refusal by Congress to take action.