Obama Admin's School Guidelines Criticized by Legal, Education Experts

Obama Admin's School Guidelines Criticized by Legal, Education Experts

The U.S. Departments of Education (DOE) and Justice (DOJ) issued a joint release Wednesday of what they have referred to as a “discipline guidance package that will assist states, districts and schools in developing practices and strategies to enhance school climate, and ensure those policies and practices comply with federal law.”

A press release indicated the primary concern of the Obama administration that “significant numbers of students miss class due to suspensions and expulsions – even for minor infractions of school rules – and students of color and with disabilities are disproportionately impacted.”

DOE and DOJ have provided a “resource package” which offers guidance for creating “safe and positive school climates, which are essential for boosting student academic success and closing achievement gaps.”

The package consists of four components:

  • The Dear Colleague guidance letter on civil rights and discipline, prepared in conjunction with DOJ, describes how schools can meet their legal obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating against students on the basis of race, color or national origin;
  • The Guiding Principles document draws from emerging research and best practices to describe three key principles and related action steps that can help guide state and local efforts to improve school climate and school discipline;
  • The Directory of Federal School Climate and Discipline Resources indexes the extensive federal technical assistance and other resources related to school discipline and climate available to schools and districts; and
  • The Compendium of School Discipline Laws and Regulations, an online catalogue of the laws and regulations related to school discipline in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, compares laws across states and jurisdictions.

“Effective teaching and learning cannot take place unless students feel safe at school,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in the press statement. “Positive discipline policies can help create safer learning environments without relying heavily on suspensions and expulsions. Schools also must understand their civil rights obligations and avoid unfair disciplinary practices.”

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Attorney General Eric Holder stated in the press release. “This guidance will promote fair and effective disciplinary practices that will make schools safe, supportive and inclusive for all students. By ensuring federal civil rights protections, offering alternatives to exclusionary discipline and providing useful information to school resource officers, we can keep America’s young people safe and on the right path.”

The Associated Press story about the release of the new guidance states, “The wide-ranging series of guidelines issued Wednesday in essence tells schools that they must adhere to the principle of fairness and equity in student discipline or face strong action if they don’t.”

According to the statement, the “guidance package” is a resource developed through a collaborative project between DOE and DOJ called the Supportive School Discipline Initiative (SSDI). Launched in July of 2011, the SSDI addressed what Obama administration officials referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline” and “disciplinary policies and practices that can push students out of school and into the justice system.”

“Ensuring that our educational system is a doorway to opportunity – and not a point of entry to our criminal justice system – is a critical, and achievable, goal,” said Holder when the SSDI was launched. “By bringing together government, law enforcement, academic, and community leaders, I’m confident that we can make certain that school discipline policies are enforced fairly and do not become obstacles to future growth, progress, and achievement.”

Included in the goals of the SSDI were the evaluation of alternative disciplinary policies and interventions and the development of “guidance to ensure that school discipline policies and practices comply with the nation’s civil rights laws.”

Another goal of the SSDI is to “increase and enhance the school discipline data available through the Civil Rights Data Collection and the efforts of the DOE and DOJ to “ensure disciplinary policies support students and are administered in a non-discriminatory manner.”

The statement regarding the new school climate “guidance” indicates that the resource package is also a result of President Obama’s “Now is the Time“proposal to reduce gun violence. According to the press release, Obama called upon DOE to “collect and disseminate best practices on school discipline policies and to help school districts develop and equitably implement their policies.”

The new guidelines have drawn criticism from both legal and education experts. 

Hans Bader, Senior Attorney with the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and former staff attorney in the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights, said in an email statement to Breitbart News, “There is something ironic about Education and Justice Department officials who have not been in a classroom in many years lecturing teachers about ‘classroom management, conflict resolution and approaches to de-escalate classroom disruptions.'”

Bader, who wrote extensively about the DOE’s investigation of the Oakland Unified School District over “racial disparities” and “disparate impact,” told Breitbart News, “The only practical way for a school system to comply with the Education Department’s demands is to adopt a de facto racial quota in discipline. But this itself puts the school system in legal jeopardy, since at least one federal appeals court has said that schools cannot use racial targets or quotas for school discipline, since that violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.”

Bader added that in the case of People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education, the court ruled that “a school cannot use race in student discipline to offset racial disparities not rooted in school officials’ racism (so-called “disparate impact”).”

“Thus, school officials are now legally on a razor’s edge,” Bader said.

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of Center for Equal Opportunity, who has also elaborated on the dangers of disparate-impact policy, said in an email statement to Breitbart News:

It is a mistake for public policies to be driven by an attempt to achieve a particular racial result. Indeed, the Obama administration’s approach turns Dr. King’s dream on its head:  We push schools to make decisions based on color of skin rather than character.  The victims will be students in the classroom most likely to be disrupted by unruly classmates, and those victims are disproportionately likely to be poor and minority — but this is a “disparate impact” that the Left always ignores.

In a blog post about the new discipline guidelines at the Cato Institute, Andrew J. Coulson, Director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, wrote, “Unfortunately, this federal pressure may end up hurting black students far more than it helps them.”

Coulson pointed to a study by Joshua Kinsler published last year in International Economic Review, which found that cutting out-of-school suspensions in schools with many disruptive students actually lowers overall student achievement.

“Expelling disruptive students may be associated with negative educational outcomes for the disruptor,” Coulson summarized, but “it is associated with positive educational outcomes for the rest of his classmates.”

“There are much better approaches to school discipline than those practiced in most public schools today,” wrote Coulson, “but until such time as those policies become widely adopted, simply pressuring districts to mete out less severe punishments seems likely to drive down the academic achievement of the very students it is meant to help.”