Trump Administration Urged to End Obama-Era ‘Misstep’ of School Leniency Rules for Minority Students

President Barack Obama takes questions from first grade students during a classroom visit
AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Civil rights and education experts continue to urge the Trump administration to scrap an Obama-era school leniency policy that coerced school districts into limiting reports of minority students’ assaultive and threatening behavior.

Under the Obama policy, in place now in more than 50 school districts throughout the country, students whose behavior would have previously drawn an arrest or a suspension are instead referred to “teen courts” or “restorative justice talking circles.” Students who receive such referrals could still be able to purchase a firearm even though they may have a history of violent behavior or threats.

This “disparate impact” policy is based on the assertion that minority students are disciplined at higher rates because of systemic racism by teachers and school administrators.

Attorney Peter Kirsanow, a Republican member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, tells Breitbart News the Obama policy is “horribly flawed” and should be ended “without delay.”

“The Obama school discipline policy is based on a number of false assumptions, including the premise that racial disparities in disciplinary rates are due to racial discrimination as opposed to disparities in rates of offense,” asserts Kirsanow, who also chairs the board of directors of the Center for New Black Leadership.

“The consequences of keeping the policy in place are staggering,” he continues. “A number of schools have experienced serious spikes in violence. Classrooms are being disrupted by students who know they’ll suffer no real consequences.”

Katherine Kersten recently described at the Star Tribune the effects of the disparate impact policy in St. Paul, Minnesota:

In St. Paul schools — as virtually everywhere in the country — black students, as a group, are referred for discipline at higher rates than other students. Starting around 2012, the district’s leaders tried to narrow this gap by lowering behavior expectations and removing meaningful penalties for student misconduct. For example, they spent millions of dollars on “white privilege” training for teachers, and dropped “continual willful disobedience” as a suspendable offense.

Violence and disorder quickly escalated. In some schools, anarchic conditions made learning difficult, if not impossible, according to teachers.

In addition to the safety issues and their resulting negative impact on academic performance, Kirsanow further observes the Obama policy “assumes black and Hispanic students can’t be held to the same behavioral standards as white and Asian students.”

“Not too long ago, that would’ve been considered racist,” he asserts.

Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos convened an organizational meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety, the members of which are DeVos, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

According to a press release from DeVos’s department, during its first meeting, the commission reviewed the scope of its work and how best to address the issues President Donald Trump directed it to take up, among them the “Repeal of the Obama Administration’s ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies.”

The commission begins its work as Broward County superintendent Robert Runcie and other progressive leaders from the Obama era are denying such “disparate impact” policies have contributed to violent and threatening students failing to be reported to law enforcement and arrested – a situation that would render them unable to pass a background check to purchase firearms.

In the case of Runcie’s district, accused Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz was able to remain under the radar and avoid arrest despite multiple threats and episodes of assaultive behavior. Ultimately, he obtained the firearm that he used for his shooting rampage that killed 17 individuals and injured others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Law professor Gail Heriot, Kirsanow’s colleague on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, wrote in an op-ed at U.S.A Today that DeVos can and should end the Obama-era “race-obsessed” policy:

[I]t was not just wrongheaded, it was beyond the scope of the Department’s legal authority. As part of a misguided effort to enforce Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition on race discrimination, the Department announced that it will cut off federal funding to schools that suspend African-American students at higher rates than white or Asian students — regardless of whether administrators and teachers are motivated by race — unless the schools can “justify” the suspensions.

Heriot also observed the policy is causing disruptive and threatening students to remain in the classroom, making it difficult for other students of all races to learn amid the disorder.

“The Obama-era policy hurt the very students it was trying to benefit,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, the Trump administration has let it continue.”

Former Obama administration officials, however, are defending the policy.

In a tweet posted on March 19, Obama-era education department Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon – who is currently chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights – quoted an editorial at the Inquirer, in which the paper’s board writes it is the duty of the federal education department “to make sure schoolchildren aren’t receiving harsher punishments for the same behavior just because they are black or brown”:

Similarly, Obama-era Assistant Education Secretary Peter Cunningham claimed the debate over the school leniency policy for minority students is a “false” one, and then went on to write that accused Parkland shooter Cruz was indeed “expelled” and sent to an “alternative school.”

However, as the Miami Herald’s extensive report on Cruz noted, “Contrary to early reports, Cruz was never expelled from Broward schools.”

The former Obama administration official also denied the 2014 “guidance” is coercive, insisting that it, instead, “offers tools and resources for alternatives to suspensions” and “encourages schools to reflect on whether its discipline practices are affected by racial bias and reminds them that discriminatory discipline practices may violate student civil rights.”

The guidance, nevertheless, said statistics showing African-American students are disproportionately disciplined is contributing to the “school to prison pipeline.”

The Obama administration continued that if schools show minority students are disciplined at disproportionately higher rates than white and Asian students – regardless of whether the discipline was deserved – “the Departments will investigate all relevant circumstances.” The guidance then described what those investigations could look like for the school districts.

Max Eden, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, tells Breitbart News, “Cunningham’s reaction perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the letter.”

“He says, ‘An awful lot of kids are still getting suspended and no one is being held accountable,’” Eden notes. “That was precisely the message the letter sent to principals and teachers: If you administer discipline to a student, you’re the one who should be in trouble.”

“The Dear Colleague Letter issued a very clear threat to these districts: get your discipline numbers down by abandoning traditional discipline in favor of a progressive approach, or else we’re coming after you,” he explains. “Individual allegations, whether or not they were true, triggered district-wide investigations intended to force school districts to submit to Obama’s discipline whim.”

Heritage Foundation education fellow Lindsey Burke said in a statement the Trump administration is right to consider rescinding the Obama-era discipline policy.

“Blanket school discipline directives from Washington tie the hands of teachers and school leaders, and evidence suggests some schools may have become less safe in the wake of the Obama ‘dear colleague’ letter,” she observed. “Suspension rates declined dramatically following the guidance but reports from teachers, survey data, and news from across the country show unintended consequences.”

Burke says the federal government should get out of the business of directing school discipline policy from afar.

“Washington should not dictate the school discipline policies of local schools, especially harmful, one-size-fits-all directives,” she stated. “Instead, schools should work with communities to provide solutions that best fit unique, local needs.”


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