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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Less discipline, more disorder

– Education Next 2015

The Obama-era push to reduce suspensions of black students ended up hurting black students, writes Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, on the Volokh Conspiracy. Schools are “tolerating more classroom disorder, thus making it more difficult for students who share the classroom with unruly students to learn,” she charges.

During Arne Duncan’s tenure, the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) threatened to investigate districts with higher rates of discipline for black students than for whites.

“The danger should have been obvious,” writes Heriot. “What if an important reason more African-American students were being disciplined than white or Asian students was that more African-American students were misbehaving?”

And what if the cost of failing to discipline those students primarily falls on their fellow African-American students who are trying to learn amid classroom disorder? Would unleashing OCR and its army of lawyers cause those schools to act carefully and precisely to eliminate only that portion of the discipline gap that was the result of race discrimination?

School administrators are risk adverse, writes Heriot. Instead of “don’t discipline a minority student unless it’s justified,” the rule became: “Don’t discipline a minority student unless you are confident that you can persuade some future federal investigator whose judgment you have no reason to trust that it was justified.”

In turn, this is presented to principals as “Don’t discipline a minority student unless you and your teachers jump through the following time-consuming procedural hoops designed to document to the satisfaction of some future federal investigator whose judgment we have no reason to trust that it was justified.” Finally, teachers hear the directive this way: “Just don’t discipline so many minority students; it will only create giant hassles for everyone involved.” 

The Obama-era guidance on eliminating racial disparities in discipline is Wrong For Students and Teachers, Wrong on the Law, Heriot and Alison Somin write in the Texas Review of Law and Politics. Well-designed studies show discipline disparities are a result of differences in behavior rather than discrimination, they argue. The article cites evidence and opinions from teachers indicating rising disorder.

Two Baltimore County teachers complained to Fox News that a culture of leniency has led to bullying and violence.

“I have been kicked. I have been punched. I have been thrown up against lockers,” stated one of the teachers. “I’ve been spit on. A lot of chair throwing, turning over desks, screaming, running around the classroom,” added the other.

Of course, many educators support new discipline strategies, such as “restorative justice,” in hopes of ending the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Last week, a coalition of education leaders called on the Trump administration to keep the discipline guidance in place, reports The 74.

The federal government must protect students’ civil rights, said Cami Anderson, founder of the Discipline Revolution Project, in a media release. “We can and must do more to replace antiquated, harsh, ineffective, and biased discipline practices with student support systems that allow teachers to move away from these practices and toward alternative approaches to suspensions that help students thrive.”

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