School Discipline Regulations Are Eminently Reasonable
To say that school discipline is a hot topic is an understatement. Depending on your perspective, public schools are disciplining too many or too few students. Luckily, we have facts to inform the discussion. As noted in the recent report released by the Government Accountability Office, overall school discipline rates appear to be declining. In 2011–12, 6.9 percent of the student population had been issued at least one out-of-school suspension; by 2013–14, the number was 5.7 percent.
However, reflecting prior research, the GAO report documented that discipline is not metered out equally. In fact, it is far from equal, black boys and students with disabilities are disciplined at least twice as often as their peers. By way of example, while black students represent 15.5 percent of all public-school students, they accounted for 39 percent of all suspensions. Furthermore, the report documented that these trends persist even when you control for poverty and type of school.
As with all policy debates, it’s important to listen to various expert opinions so that informed decisions can be made about how to move forward. But there is one narrative that simply lacks credibility and it must be called out, which is that these different discipline rates are attributable to poverty. Pundits determined to advance this groundless argument are simply attempting to foster an inherently discriminatory narrative. Furthermore, they’re actively trying to strike fear into parents by spuriously correlating efforts to decrease disproportionality with chaos and even mass shootings in schools.
At the crux of this debate is the question of whether to implement or postpone the regulations pertaining to significant disproportionality. Proponents of delaying — and, ultimately, scrapping the regulations — claim that the regulations reign chaos upon schools by forbidding teachers or administrators from identifying or disciplining students of color or those who have disabilities. These interpretations are not only incorrect but imply a puzzling and counterproductive narrative. Though never said explicitly, the narrative goes as follows: If we don’t continue to discipline all of the bad black children and students with disabilities, our schools won’t be safe for the “good” students.
In 2014, the Departments of Justice and Education released a joint “Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL) that drew on credible research and outlined concerns with racial disparities in discipline. The DCL’s detailed definition of discriminatory disciplinary practices included not only cases where students are “treated differently” based solely on race, but also practices that have unintended but nonetheless “disparate impacts” on different racial groups.
In 2016, the DOE drafted “Significant Disproportionality” regulations, based on the 2014 guidance, under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These regulations establish a template for states to establish a standardized and transparent process of reporting the extent to which districts are disproportionately (1) identifying specific groups as having a disability, (2) serving specific groups in more restrictive educational environments, or (3) disciplining specific groups more often than their peers. The objective of the regulations was to identify and remedy practices that lead to disproportionate identification and discipline, practices generally correlated with low expectations and decreased access to content instruction.
The regulations are eminently reasonable. They provide states with a standard and methodologically solid means for reporting the proportion of students in a specific minority being identified, segregated, or disciplined, and they provide states with the discretion to identify their own threshold for what is “disproportionate.”
In my view, the regulations are similar to the DOE definition of cohort graduation rates, establishedyears ago in response to states’ disparate methods for tracking high school graduation rates, which had led to some questionable reporting. Furthermore, the regulation goes to great lengths to avoid anything resembling a quota or cap. The guidance notes:
Nothing in these regulations establishes or authorizes the use of racial or ethnic quotas, nor do they restrict the ability of a group of qualified professionals and the parent of a child to appropriately identify children as children with disabilities or the ability of a group of persons, including the parents, and other persons knowledgeable about the child, the meaning of the evaluation data, and the placement options to appropriately place children with disabilities.
Arguing that the regulations should be scrapped because they could unintentionally lead to quotas is like arguing that all standardized tests should be scrapped because some schools may cheat. Every regulation leads to some unintended consequences which need to be monitored but the merits of implementing these regulations far outweigh the potential drawbacks.
Furthermore, the regulations provide states flexibility to identify a district as engaging in practices that have a significant disproportionately “only after it exceeds a risk ratio threshold for up to three prior consecutive years.” State must also “exclude small populations from analysis, and exclude from determinations of significant disproportionality LEAs [local educational agencies] that have made reasonable progress in reducing their risk ratios.”
In other words, not only do the regulations provide states with discretion in determining the threshold; they also provide ample room for variance, arguably only surfacing districts that have shown significant disproportionality over an extended period of time.
I recognize that it’s essential for educators and administrators to retain discretion over instructional practices in their respective classrooms and buildings. And, in a perfect world, professionals would be recognize their own biases and work to ensure they treat all students equally. However, when that discretion leads to students of color and students with disabilities disproportionately being denied access to instruction at two or three times the rate of their white peers, for multiple years in a row, it’s absolutely appropriate for the DOE to intervene in a manner that breaks the cycle of abysmal outcomes. It’s time we collectively own the institutional racism and discriminatory practices that have subjugated far too many students of color and students with disabilities and turn our attention to correcting these systemic problems, not quibbling about some implementation challenges we can readily address along the way.
Lauren Morando Rhim Rhim is a researcher, consultant, and advocate committed to identifying strategies to create quality public schools for all students.