Disciplining the undisciplined

Federal “guidance” on school discipline could “have a chilling effect . . . potentially leading to unruly and unsafe classrooms,” warned senior House Republicans in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder.

The letter was too polite, writes Checker Finn in Disciplining the undisciplined. It will be harder to create “safe, serious, and effective learning environments” for students who want to learn.

A 23-page “Dear Colleague” letter warns against disciplinary practices that have a “disparate impact” on various groups of kids. University of Colorado political scientist Josh Dunn explains:

. . .  if students in one racial group are punished more than their percentage of the student population a school can expect the feds to come knocking at their door. In that investigation, federal bureaucrats will ask if a discipline policy had an “adverse” (disproportionate) impact on a particular race, if the policy is necessary to meet important educational goals, and if other effective policies could be substituted without the “adverse” effect. The guidelines are unsurprisingly short on what could count as an important educational goal and what policies might be suitable alternatives. If evenhandedly designed and implemented policies could fall afoul of their bureaucratic eye, then any policy could.

“The consequences for schools and particularly for minority students, will be nothing short of disastrous if actually implemented,” Dunn concludes.

Suspended learning

Reformers should support the Obama administration’s effort to “reduce the overuse of suspensions and expulsions,” argues RiShawn Biddle in a Dropout Nation podcast. Harsh discipline pushes troubled kids out of school, he argues. And it doesn’t work.

Setting racial quotas for discipline will have a “disparate impact” on disruptive students’ classmates, writes Hans Bader. Their classroom safety and learning time will be sacrificed. 

Like crime rates, student misconduct rates aren’t the same across racial categories, Bader writes.

 The Supreme Court ruled many years ago that such racial disparities don’t prove racism or unconstitutional discrimination. But in guidance released last week by the Education and Justice Departments, the Obama administration signaled that it will hold school districts liable for such racial disparities under federal Title VI regulations. In the long run, the only practical way for school districts to comply with this guidance is to tacitly adopt unconstitutional racial quotas in school discipline.

Schools can be held liable for “racially disparate impact” for non-racist policies that unintentionally lead to more minority suspensions, writes Bader.

Many schools adopted zero-common-sense policies to avoid charges of racial bias. The new policy opposes zero-tolerance policies that mandate suspension or expulsion. It also discourages calling the police for school misbehavior, a growing trend.

The feds have no authority to set school discipline policies — unless they’re protecting minority or disabled students from discrimination. Of course, they could recommend more sensible and flexible discipline policies without bringing race into it, but they want to do more.

Los Angeles Unified is relaxing its zero-tolerance discipline policy, reports NPR. The district won’t issue “school police citations and court appearances for minor offenses such as fighting, loitering, underage drinking, and defacing desks and walls.” Instead, schools will try “restorative justice.”

Feds won’t tolerate ‘zero tolerance’

“Zero tolerance” policies — adopted to ensure uniform punishments — are too harsh, says the Obama administration, which issued an advisory on school discipline.

“Ordinary troublemaking can sometimes provoke responses that are overly severe, including out of school suspensions, expulsions and even referral to law enforcement and then you end up with kids that end up in police precincts instead of the principal’s office,” Attorney General Eric Holder said.

Blacks, Latinos and students with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended or expelled than non-disabled whites, according to federal civil rights data. That’s fueled the campaign for more flexible school discipline.

The recommendations encourage schools to train teachers and staff in classroom management and conflict resolution, offer counseling to students, teach social and emotional skills and avoid using security or police officers to handle routine discipline issues.

Training school administrators to make common-sense decisions about school safety. . . Can it be done?

Under “disparate impact doublespeak,” schools must make punishments fit the percentages, writes Joshua Dunn, a University of Colorado political science professor, on Flypaper.

. . . schools still “violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies” that were adopted with no intent to discriminate “but nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race.”  Ordinary English users can be forgiven if they find themselves scratching their heads asking, “How could evenhanded and neutral policies actually be discriminatory?  Doesn’t discrimination require someone, you know, actually discriminating?”

. . . If we accept the guideline’s assumption that disruptive behavior should be evenly distributed across racial groups, Asian students are woefully underpunished.

Students who want to learn will be the losers, he predicts. Federal bureaucrats will be “winners since these guidelines give them another pretext to meddle in local schools.”

Discipline: Playing the numbers game

If black students are suspended at a higher rate than white students, is that discrimination? The Obama administration’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating a Florida school district on charges its discipline policies have a “disparate impact” on black students.

Black students made up 16 percent of Flagler students but accounted for 31 percent of the in- and out-of-school suspensions in the 2010-11 school year, the complaint states. Black students accounted for 69 percent of those expelled.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings on School Discipline and Disparate Impact. “Most, but not all of the teachers reported no effort by school administrators to interfere with classroom discipline, but some reported onerous procedural and paperwork burdens before any disruptive student could be removed from class,” according to the executive summary.

School administrators said it’s important to tell students “what the rules are; why the school has those rules, what the consequences are for violating those rules, and being consistent in applying the rules.” (No kidding!)

Jamie Frank, a teacher who’s taught in a variety of schools, said pressure to meet accountability targets affected discipline policies.

. . .  in some school districts teachers were ordered to reduce racially-disparate suspensions in spite of threatening behaviors toward teachers involving weapons. For example, in her school teachers were ordered to substitute a day of “exclusion” at home for what otherwise would have been a suspension. Her view was that the schools felt pressured to pass some minority students through high school regardless of how many days they did not appear for classes to keep graduation numbers high for each racial group.

. . . Ms. Frank said that in her school the administrators were told to reduce their suspension numbers. As a result, they developed a euphemism –“in-school exclusion or intervention” — which allowed the school to avoid reporting the data as suspensions. In addition, the teachers had to fill out a form that required contacting a parent three times before disciplinary action was possible, and that usually a minority student simply reappeared in school even if parents did not respond.

Commissioner Kirsanow asked about the effect of retaining disruptive students on the learning experience.

“Horrible,” said Frank.

Discipline by race

Racial quotas in school discipline could be coming to Maryland, writes Hans Bader in the Examiner.

“As a lawyer who used to bring civil-rights cases for a living, I am very disturbed” by the Maryland State Board of Education’s proposed school discipline policy, Bader writes.

This proposed rule violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution by pressuring schools to discipline students based on their race, rather than their individual conduct and the content of their character.

. . . (The rule) would require school systems to discipline and suspend students in numbers roughly in proportion to their racial percentage of the student body, and require school systems that currently don’t do so to implement plans to eliminate any racially “disproportionate impact” over a three-year period. Thus, it is imposing quotas in all but name.

The Obama administration has supported the use of “disparate impact” to evaluate school discipline policies.

The Maryland board also wants schools to discipline special education students — including those diagnosed with behavioral disorders — at the ame rate as other students. However, there’s no plan for gender balance in school discipline.

Of course, reducing out-of-school suspensions makes a lot of sense, if it can be done without threatening the safety of other students.

‘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.

Discipline by race

If  schools discipline more blacks or Hispanics than white students, federal officials warn they’ll use “disparate impact analysis” to charge civil rights violations, reports Education Week.

Under “disparate impact,” schools can be in violation if discipline policies affect one racial group more than others, even if there’s no evidence of unequal treatment for the same offense or an intent to discriminate.  An education agency would be found out of compliance if an equally sound policy would have less of a disparate impact, Russlyn Ali,an Education Department official, told Ed Week.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at a conference he was “deeply troubled by rising discipline rates and disparities in discipline” in the nation’s schools.  The department has launched compliance reviews in the Christina School District in Wilmington, Del.; the Salamanca City (N.Y.) Central School District; Winston-Salem/Forsyth (N.C.) County Schools; San Juan (Utah) School District; and Rochester (Minn.) Public Schools. All involve both different-treatment and disparate-impact analyses.

Roger Clegg, president of Center for Equal Opportunity, warned the policy could push schools to manipulate the data rather than enforce rules fairly.

“In education, with respect to discipline, my concern would be that school districts are afraid they will be hauled before a court or some administration agency and threatened with a loss of federal funding whenever they have a racial imbalance of one kind or another,” he said. He explained that educators might become hypersensitive to students’ race or ethnicity in discipline decisions, resulting in disciplining some students who shouldn’t be and not disciplining others who deserve it.

In most districts, suspension rates are much higher for black and Hispanic students. Denver Public Schools changed its policies in response to complaints from a local community group, says Allegra “Happy” Haynes, the chief community-engagement officer.

The district implemented a “discipline ladder,” for example, that spelled out the level of the disciplinary action students would receive for specific kinds of infractions, such as chewing gum in class or talking back to teachers. The policy emphasized that students should receive out-of-school suspensions or be referred to police only for serious misconduct, such as causing harm to someone in a fight.

The result was that referrals to law-enforcement officers dropped by 63 percent and out-of-school suspensions declined by 43 percent in the district from the 2008-09 school year to the 2009-10 school year, she said.

Denver’s policy seems to make sense: Why kick kids out of school or call in the police, unless it’s necessary to maintain safety? But it doesn’t make Hispanics as likely to be suspended as Asian-Americans or whites. For that matter, boys are far more likely to get in trouble than girls. Should the rules be changed to tolerate boy-typical misbehavior?

The “different treatment” rule, used in the Bush administration, is simple: The black kid who curses the teacher shouldn’t get a harsher punishment than the white kid who curses the teacher.  It doesn’t matter if blacks are more likely to curse and therefore to get in trouble.

When student misbehavior is tolerated, it’s harder for teachers to teach and for students to learn.  The wild kid who gets away with it pays in the long run because he doesn’t learn self-control, a critical life skill.  All the high-achieving, high-poverty schools teach students to follow the rules so they can learn in a safe, orderly atmosphere.