‘Disparate impact’ debate on discipline

Educators criticized — and defended — the use of  “disparate impact” in school discipline cases in a hearing before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, reports Ed Week.

Obama administration officials announced last spring that they’ll question discipline policies disproportionately affect blacks, Hispanics or some other subgroups, even if there’s no intent to discriminate. However, discipline policies would be “out of compliance only if an equally sound policy would have less of a disparate impact.”

At the Feb. 11 briefing, Ricardo Soto, the deputy assistant secretary for the Education Department’s office for civil rights, said, “there is no universal, one-size-fits-all approach to discipline that will be right for every school or all students.” However, the department will release new federal guidance on school discipline this year.

Commissioner Todd F. Gaziano told Soto the new approach puts “an extremely heavy burden on the school to justify any disparity.”  Educators might avoid imposing warranted discipline to avoid overrepresentation, Gaziano said.

Allen Zollman, a teacher of English as a second language at an urban middle school in Pennsylvania that he did not name, said he . . . is opposed to having to give “a thought to disparate impact” if he needs to remove a disruptive student from class, saying he views it as a constraint on effective discipline.

Should his school require such a policy, Mr. Zollman said, he would respond in one of three ways: disregard it and continue to refer whatever students he sees fit for disciplinary action, do nothing and tolerate chaos in his classroom, or take an early retirement from teaching.

Jamie Frank, who said she has been a teacher for 11 years in the suburban Washington area, said she worked in a district that stopped failing students who cut class because the policy was disproportionately affecting some groups of students. Teachers were required to reteach and retest students who’d missed class and give them time to make up work, she said.

Some district administrators supported the administration’s new policy.

For example, Hertica Y. Martin, the executive director of elementary and secondary education for Minnesota’s Rochester public schools, reported that from the 2007-08 to 2009-10 school years, the district reduced an overrepresentation of expelled African-American males. She credited a disciplinary approach gaining traction in schools nationwide, called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support, with helping to support fairer disciplinary action. She also emphasized the importance of classes about racial and ethnic diversity that the school district has provided to teachers, with titles such as The Role of Whiteness and The Culturally Relevant Classroom.

It’s possible expulsions fell because the discipline model worked well. Or teachers got the message to go easy on black male students.

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