Youth Justice Project: Federal Commission on School Safety Recommends Scrapping Anti-Discrimination Guidance Implemented During Obama Administration

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Federal Commission on School Safety has released its final report, which includes a recommendation that the DOE and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) rescind guidance issued in 2014 aimed at ensuring educational agencies comply with federal obligations to administer student discipline without discriminating based on race, color, or national origin.  The guidance:

  • offers direction to school districts on the best ways to avoid discriminatory discipline practices;
  • explains the Office for Civil Rights’ Title VI and DOJ’s Title IV and Title VI investigative process, including the existing legal framework, evidence considered, and the types of remedies sought if violations are found;
  • provides hypothetical examples of school discipline policies/practices that may violate civil rights laws; and
  • equips school officials with an array of tools to support positive student behavior – thereby providing a range of options to prevent and address misconduct – that will both promote safety and avoid the use of discipline policies that are discriminatory or inappropriate.

Without the regulations on the books, schools would still not be allowed to discriminate against students based on race, color, or national origin; however, rescinding the guidance would remove valuable information schools use to comply with federal law. Students of color and students with disabilities are the groups most likely to experience the negative consequences of discriminatory discipline practices. In 2016-17, Black students in North Carolina were over four times as likely to receive a short-term suspension as their White peers.

“We know that students of color and students with disabilities face well-documented and continuing disproportionate levels of school exclusion through suspensions, expulsions, and informal removals,” said Peggy Nicholson, co-director of the Youth Justice Project at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Withdrawing the federal guidance as a resource would set schools up to fail students and fall back into practices that discriminate against students based on their race.”

The Youth Justice Project has filed several Title VI complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) over the past few years alleging systemic discrimination against students of color in school discipline practices.  A complaint filed in Wake County (NC) in 2010 was recently resolved after the district and OCR entered a resolution agreement that requires the school system to make significant changes to its discipline policies and practices. A complaint filed in Lee County (FL) was settled earlier this year after the district agreed to revise its discipline practices and policies to address racial disproportionality.

“There is simply no good reason to scrap guidance that can help schools avoid discriminating against students.  There are outstanding complaints across the country that demonstrate the need for addressing racially discriminatory discipline in schools,” said Nicholson.

The Commission’s report included various other recommendations relating to school safety (click for Commission’s website). Some of these recommendations, such as urging states to provide resources to help schools create positive school climates and increasing mental health supports, are evidence-based and likely to improve overall safety. However, other recommendations in the report may actually worsen school safety and have unintended negative impacts on students, including the suggestion that school districts consider arming school staff and pour their limited resources into expensive physical security measures.

The Commission’s membership includes DOE Secretary Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the fourth member of the Commission until he resigned from his office.

“Rescinding the school discipline guidance would send multiple messages.  For schools that want help in ending discriminatory practices, rescission would tell them to look somewhere else and that they are on their own.  For students, taking away this guidance would send the message that the federal government may not be there to help if they are discriminated against.  This would be a big loss for students, families, and schools across the country,” said Ricky Watson, co-director of the Youth Justice Project.  “We have to ask who is helped by rolling back these guidelines, and the obvious answer is no one.  This doesn’t help kids.  This doesn’t help schools.  This doesn’t help our communities.  We need community groups and advocacy groups to step up now more than ever to be the advocates that these children need.”

The 2014 guidance for complying with non-discrimination laws can be found at http://bit.ly/2014Guidance

The Commision’s final report can be found at https://www2.ed.gov/documents/school-safety/school-safety-report.pdf?utm_content=&utm_medium=email&utm_name=&utm_source=govdelivery&utm_term=