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This summer marks the third time in eight years that the US Department of Education has reviewed its policy on how school districts should handle student discipline.
And while the controversy surrounding the issue hasn’t changed, the pandemic offers a troubling new context: Districts are reporting spikes in student misconduct, violent attacks on school employees, and blatant disregard for school rules. school.
“There’s definitely a much higher level of deregulation in our kids,” said Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools in Colorado. He added that educators generally expect students to fall into a routine and follow the rules by September. “We didn’t touch this until spring break.”
The Ministry of Education should update its two-part policy. One will focus on students with disabilities, who are much more likely to be suspended and expelled than non-disabled students. The other will address racial gaps in discipline — a reality that persists in many districts despite widespread efforts over the past decade to keep students from being pulled out of school and often referred to the police.
Advocates for student education rights urge the department to make a strong statement against discipline that keeps students out of class.
“Discipline is inherently an authoritative tool used to punish students for being what an adult has chosen to disobey,” said Denise Stile Marshall, president of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, which focuses on children’s rights. students with disabilities. “There’s a lot of research on this, but simply put, punitive school discipline doesn’t improve student behavior or academic achievement.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s not accidental. The person leading the department’s effort is Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary at the Office for Civil Rights, the same position she held under Obama. Seth Galanter, who worked with Lhamon during the Obama years, also returned to the civil rights office after four years at the National Center for Youth Law.
In 2014, the Obama administration released a document stating that schools where black and Hispanic students were disproportionately expelled for disciplinary reasons could violate federal civil rights laws — even if those students misbehaved at rates higher.
Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos overturned those guidelines in 2018, siding with those who called the move “coercive” and said she misinterpreted civil rights laws intended to prevent discrimination.
The Biden administration is addressing the issue not only more sympathetic to the idea of restorative justice, but amid a pandemic that has seen an increase in student misconduct. A North Carolina official said student behavior was so “appalling” that educators feared for their safety.
“A disturbed year of schooling”
It’s one of the reasons Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said in January that the department should suspend new guidelines, arguing that districts shouldn’t have to fear a federal investigation. for removing disruptive students from the classroom.
The pandemic, he noted, was worse for lower-income black and Hispanic students, who were more likely to attend schools that had been closed for longer.
“The same students who have more catching up to do after a disrupted year of schooling also face the prospect of a more difficult learning environment if schools are reluctant to withdraw problem students,” he wrote. .
Others say the pandemic should not interrupt administration efforts to reexamine the issue of bias in school discipline.
“It’s always a good time to say that racial discrimination is wrong [and] that children with disabilities have the right to be with their non-disabled peers,” said Liz King, senior program director for education at the Leaders’ Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
She thinks the guidance should reflect recent research showing that policing schools does not reduce gun violence, but increases student suspensions, expulsions and arrests, particularly for black students. She wants the department to take a stand against the isolation and coercion of students and to “address” the rights of black and Hispanic girls and LGBTQ students.
Data shows that black girls are five times more likely than white girls to be suspended from school at least once and four times more likely to be arrested from school. A 2016 analysis by advocacy group GLSEN found that LGBTQ students are suspended at higher rates than non-LGBTQ students.
“Absolutely a Dance”
The Obama-era guidelines encompassed so-called restorative justice practices that aim to give students a chance to build stronger relationships, resolve grievances and redress their actions instead of suspension. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have passed laws supporting the model, according to the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law School.
Previous research on these programs was mixed, but a more recent analysis from California found that restorative practices can reduce disparities between black and white disciplines and are associated with higher high school grade point averages.
But “good discipline is very expensive” and difficult to implement with “the regular assignment of teachers in the school”, said Elliott Duchon, former superintendent of the Jurupa Unified School District, near Los Angeles.
His district launched a multi-year effort to reduce suspensions and expulsions after federal authorities found Hispanic students were more likely to be suspended than white students.
Los Angeles Unified’s restorative justice program costs $13 million a year, according to the district, and funding for the Oakland district program — considered a national model — was nearly cut until the city and private funders step in to cover the cost.
Critics of alternative disciplinary practices argue that the Obama-era councils have created tension between teachers who issue disciplinary dismissals and administrators who send students back to class without any consequences.
“It’s absolutely a dance,” said Jacqueline Shirey, at-risk coordinator for the Beaumont Independent School District in Texas. “If we are going to say that the students cannot leave, what are we doing to help the teachers?
With that in mind, Shirey began training teachers last fall to set up “de-escalation” spaces in their classrooms — a desk with a box that includes stress balls, 500-piece puzzles, and writing materials.
“I saw a way for students to learn how to deal with their own emotions before it became disruptive, and I didn’t want students to leave my class to do that,” she said, but said. added that ground rules are needed. “If you don’t implement it for a purpose, it really becomes supplies in a corner for students to play with.”
When the students returned last fall, some administrators decided it was important to take a business as usual approach to discipline.
In Nashville, Hunters Lane High School principal Susan Kessler said her teachers are “enforcing the dress code this year and every year” and that it helps “maintain school culture, enhance building safety and reduce distractions in the classroom.
Other school leaders have taken into account the impact of school closures on student behavior.
Aaron Eyler, principal of Matawan Regional High School in Aberdeen, New Jersey, gathered his staff in September for a candid conversation about what to expect when students return.
He told them not to worry about trying to “win the battle” against students wearing hoodies and hats. And he wasn’t surprised to see more of what he called insubordination, like students wearing Airpods and being late to class. The goal, he said, was to prevent students from missing out on further instruction.
“With… what happened last year and the lack of a coherent structure,” he said, “it was impossible that we didn’t have more discipline than what we’re used to in the game. ‘school.”
Ronn Nozoe, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said any guidance from the department is likely to “ruffle feathers”, but added, “You never want to tie the hands of people who are doing actually work.