Leave School Discipline Up to the Schools

(The Bloomberg View) -- With students across the U.S. returning to school for the new academic year, teachers and administrators are bracing to deal with a familiar challenge — maintaining an orderly and supportive environment that lets students learn and teachers teach.

Always, this is easier said than done. Now and then, government policy makes it harder.

In 2014, the Education Department sent what is known as a “Dear Colleague” letter to districts nationwide warning that the department’s Office for Civil Rights would investigate schools where students of different races had disproportionately high rates of suspensions and other disciplinary measures. Though doubtless well-intended and directed to a real problem, this approach is mistaken. It needs to be rethought.

In the 2014 letter, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pointed out that federal law prohibits school districts from discrimination in punishments based on characteristics such as race, national origin and religion. And he noted that 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended repeatedly, and 36 percent of those expelled were African-American — a group that accounted for just 15 percent of the student population.   

Concerns over high rates of suspension are certainly justified. Students who are repeatedly suspended often find themselves trapped in the dismal cycle of dropping out, failing to find jobs, and succumbing to poverty or criminality. Many come from the most disadvantaged populations. Nonetheless, allowing dangerous and disruptive students to stay in the classroom puts all other students at risk, threatening their safety and impairing their education.

States and districts ought to intervene when schools unfairly target minorities for punishment. But basing that judgment on whether schools have higher rates of punishment for minorities than for white students applies a dangerously blunt standard, which runs the risk of leading schools to be too tolerant of disruptive and dangerous behavior.  

The evidence to date on the effects of the guidance is unclear. In a survey this year by the AASA School Superintendents Association, most respondents said the guidance letter hadn’t led them to change their policies. But the message from Washington seems to be getting through: Some 20 percent of respondents said they felt pressure from OCR (though not necessarily from the guidance itself) to keep in school students that staff would have preferred to remove. In urban districts, the figure doubles.

A recent study of schools in Philadelphia, which banned suspensions for nonviolent classroom behavior in 2012, also emphasizes the uncertainties surrounding such research — yet sounds a warning on unintended consequences. “The poorest, most racially homogeneous, and most academically challenged schools” had most trouble complying with the ban, the researchers found. And “never-suspended students in many schools, including most schools that reduced their suspension rates, experienced a decline in academic performance, relative to the most plausible comparison group.”

Schools can best judge when suspension is appropriate. The bar should be high, but not so high that schools fear losing federal money if they protect students from persistently disruptive or dangerous behavior. Instead of pressuring teachers to let disruptive behavior slide, the Education Department ought to direct further resources for training and support of teachers in other ways of improving discipline. Research suggests, for instance, that schools which implement a program of positive behavioral support get good results.

Trust the staff on the spot. The 2014 guidance should be withdrawn.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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