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Why the Federal Government Can't Mandate an Ideal School Suspension Rate

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos might rescind Obama-era guidance on school discipline.

DeVosJOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS/NewscomEducation Secretary Betsy DeVos is debating whether to rescind Obama-era instructions to discipline fewer minority students. Would she be right to do so?

It's complicated. Thanks to zero tolerance policies, many schools are too quick to suspend, expel, or arrest kids for less-than-perfect behavior. But the previous administration's efforts to combat overzealous punishment were clumsy, and some critics argue that they undermined order in classrooms where harsher disciplinary measures might have been warranted.

Advocates for rescinding the guidance made this argument during a closed-to-the-press meeting with the secretary on Wednesday. Among them was Eileen Sofa, whose son was sexually assaulted in school. Sofa's story, reported by The Weekly Standard, is compelling:

Schools like San Diego's Lincoln High, which earned its reputation for institutional laxity long before [Obama-era Education Secretary Arne] Duncan's guidance, only found fresh incentive to avoid documenting and responding to student-on-student abuses when the federal rule took effect four years ago.

Lincoln had been under investigation already last summer when a teenaged boy with special needs followed a more severely impaired, non-verbal classmate into the restroom and raped him. An aide who found the boys together in a bathroom stall drew up a detailed report—but the school classified the assault as a lesser offense, an "obscene act," which the victim's mother, Eileen Sofa, believed for more than a year was a far milder indignity than what had really been done to her boy.

It took a devoted teacher of her son's, Nate Page, to expose the truth. When he learned what had happened, that the rapist was not expelled and the police failed to follow through, "Nate was livid," says Nicole Stewart, a former Lincoln High vice principal who resigned in protest. "He is the entire reason that [Channel 7 reporter] Wendy Fry and Eileen Sofa know, or knew that anything had happened."

But past the point of exposing the school district's inaction and publicizing the case, Page found he couldn't ignite the outcry Sofa's son deserved. "He put together teams of people willing to talk about bad practices at Lincoln, specifically talk about the rape case. He had professors, he had doctors, he had lawyers," Stewart recalls. But with a non-verbal victim and an unwilling school administration, justice eluded them. "Nate was so defeated, he committed suicide in September."

Other advocates of rescinding the guidance tell dramatic stories of teachers helpless to confront violence in the classroom. Students are hitting teachers and suffering no consequences because schools are afraid the feds will open an investigation, according to The New York Post. The Obama-era policies have been blamed for the mass shooting in Parkland: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) claimed that the guidance "arguably made it easier for schools to not report students to law enforcement than deal with the potential consequences," the implication being that school authorities did not properly deal with Nikolas Cruz because they were operating under federal constraints. The Broward County school board and the sheriff's department—run by the blame-dodging Sheriff Scott Israel—had made an agreement to suspend and arrest fewer students.

These examples make the guidance seem incredibly counterproductive. And yet schools probably aren't any more violence-prone than they were before its implementation. "If you take a step back, what you will find is that the overall rate of violence in schools is declining," Stephen Brock, a professor at California State University, tells The Atlantic.

The fact that schools are actually very safe is something many conservatives seem to grasp better than many liberals—when the subject is shootings. But when the designated scapegoat is "Obama" rather than "guns," it's the right that suddenly frets about an epidemic of violence in schools and it's the left that's worried the right's solution will threaten individual rights, undermine due process, and cause disparate harm.

Speaking of which, it's well-documented that racial minorities are disciplined at disproportionate rates. A Government Accountability Office study released last month found that "Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school." That's a serious problem, since suspended students are more likely to suffer other problems down the road: commit crimes, not attend college, etc.

Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, makes the best case for rescinding the guidance anyway. (Disclaimer: I am a member of the D.C. Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which makes recommendations about what issues the committee should investigate.) In a USA Today op-ed, Heriot writes:

If there was ever an issue best handled locally, it's school discipline. Teachers and principals know far better than federal bureaucrats whether their students have been misbehaving and what to do about it. No, they're not perfect. That's why we elect school boards to keep tabs on them. But they'll make far fewer mistakes if they're allowed to use their common sense than if they're forced to dance to the federal government's tune.

Even when the edicts of distant bureaucracies are superficially reasonable, by the time they reach the foot soldiers on the ground, they get garbled. If the federal government instructs school districts, "Don't discipline a student unless it's appropriate," they will naturally understand it as "Don't discipline a student unless you are confident that you can persuade a future federal investigator, whose judgment you have no reason to trust, that it was appropriate." Administrators therefore require teachers to document in excruciating detail the circumstances of a student's misbehavior before disciplinary action can be taken. By the time the directive reaches teachers, they hear it as: "Just don't discipline so many students; it only creates giant hassles."

Heriot is right: There is no way the federal government can instinctually know what the right number of suspensions is. And while local decision-makers are far from omniscient on these matters, they are more likely to understand what kind of disciplinary regime a certain school needs. Many of the most onerous zero tolerance policies originated at the federal level before trickling down to school districts. The Gun-Free Schools Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, prompted most states to swiftly establish mandatory expulsion policies for students who brought weapons to school. Within a few years, large majorities of schools had zero tolerance policies—not just for weapons, but for alcohol and tobacco possession as well.

The federal government is also largely responsible for the massive increase in the number of discipline enforcers in schools: The feds have spent billions of dollars subsidizing the hiring of school resource officers. Such cops can now be found in two-thirds of the country's public middle schools and high schools. (For a more detailed look at how federal policy shaped the zero tolerance movement, read my article from the March 2017 issue of Reason, co-authored with Tyler Koteskey.)

It's possible that schools would have marched lockstep in this direction on their own, but no one can deny that the feds played an important role in the overdiscipline problem. At best, the Obama-era guidance could be seen as an off-target attempt to fix earlier mistakes. A better corrective would have been to cancel the relevant grant programs and repeal laws that precipitated this crisis, though this approach would have required congressional cooperation, and the Obama administration often preferred to govern by executive fiat.

Given the reality of the current situation, it's possible that repealing the guidance and letting schools address disciplinary issues as they see fit is the correct course of action. It's also possible that this will unleash a wave of absurd and unnecessary suspensions, and that minority students will be the principal victims.

Since every school is different—and every child has different needs—it should be doubtful that any federally designed policy would strike the right balance. Probably the best thing DeVos could do would be to promote local school choice initiatives, which provide more education options while increasing the likelihood that each family finds the right program for their kid. And of course she can push to rescind the federal programs that fueled the zero-tolerance era in the first place.

Photo Credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS/Newscom

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  • Azathoth!!||

    No, it's not complicated, Robby.

    You discipline or suspend the children who have done something to earn suspension regardless of race.

    Period.

    If a school's disciplinary procedures need an overhaul, that's a separate matter. You do not, ever, introduce a racial quota into how justice is metered out. It does not work.

  • cereal_shake||

    I may have some bad news for you...

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Minority children should be free to violate the rights of others, because racism"

    Another Libertarian Moment brought to you by Reason.com

  • Barry Gold||

    Huh? How does "some discipline is inappropriate, but letting the individual school decide is still the right thing" amount to "Minority children should be free to violate the rights of others, because racism"?

    Seems to me that Soave is arguing the exact opposite -- that even though racism is a problem, the Obama-era rules are a stupid -- and arguably unconstitutional - interference with state & local government.

  • KevinP||

    Behind Cruz's Rampage: Obama's School-Leniency Policy


    Quotes (but read the whole article):
    Despite committing a string of arrestable offenses on campus before the Florida school shooting, Nikolas Cruz was able to escape the attention of law enforcement, pass a background check and purchase the weapon he used to slaughter three school staff members and 14 fellow students because of Obama administration efforts to make school discipline more lenient.

    ...
    A repeat offender, Cruz benefited from the lax discipline policy, if not the counseling. Although he was disciplined for a string of offenses -- including assault, threatening teachers and carrying bullets in his backpack -- he was never taken into custody or even expelled. Instead, school authorities referred him to mandatory counseling or transferred him to alternative schools.

    By avoiding a criminal record, Cruz passed a federal background check in February 2017 before purchasing the AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle investigators say was used in the mass shooting.

  • Just Say'n||

    Let local communities decide their own local school district policies. It's a radical idea, I know, but considering that over 90% of public school funding is derived from states and the local community it kind of makes sense that the federal government shouldn't get a lot of say in the matter.

  • Just Say'n||

    I also want to note that Robby had the best takeaway from that whole Kevin Williamson firing.

    Robby Soave on Twitter: "Why is neoconservatism the only version of conservatism that liberal magazines find okay? Think abortion is murder, as Kevin Williamson does: you can't work at The Atlantic. Say the U.S. should kill thousands of Iraqis, and advise the the president to do just that: job security."

    Well done, Robby.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    They are violent thugs themselves.

    They both believe in saving people from themselves, from enforcing a certain lifestyle and belief upon people. They just differ in the details.

  • Just Say'n||

    Oh come on. You can't compare Williamson's pro-life position and provocative comments to David Frum who has never seen a war that he didn't think the US should be involved in. There is no comparison.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I'm comparing Neo-Cons and progressives. I don't know enough about Williamson to comment on him.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Because the Uniparty is the Globalist Party.

    Wake me when The Atlantic, or Reason, let's a nationalist populist on their staff.

  • Rev. Arthur Ꮮ. Kirkland||

    Some people actually remember the origins of the term "neoconservative" and realize that solves the question neatly.

    (The original neoconservatives were "pay any price, bear any burden" interventionist liberals who joined the right because the left in the 1970s had turned anti-war. Therefore a neoconservative, originally, meant a 1970s liberal who believed in the US exporting liberalism by force of arms. Is it really any surprise that standard liberals would find people who want to impose liberalism by force on the whole world reasonably congenial?)

  • colorblindkid||

    "Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school." That's a serious problem, since suspended students are more likely to suffer other problems down the road: commit crimes, not attend college, etc.

    Where is the proof that this is due to anything but the fact that black students are that much more likely to commit acts that warrant suspension?

    Black men commit murder at 7X the rate of white men, and all violent crimes at 4-5X the rate. They are about 2.5X more likely to be killed by cops than white men and 3X more likely to be suspended. These numbers are not unrelated. They are simply inconvenient.

  • Eidde||

    To be fair, if you control for family structure (i. e. fatherlessness), then the crime rate of whites and blacks looks more similar.

    Which is why they don't want to control for family structure - it would antagonize both the race-baiters and the social liberals.

  • cereal_shake||

    I've been told that in the classroom, it is the result of a cultural disconnect, such as white teachers with black students. I'd be interested to suspension rates where that is controlled for.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Cultural disconnect? Like speaking actual english, focusing on academics, and following polite behavioral norms? (Or even showing up in class?)

  • Just Say'n||

    Yes. This is a truth that the "right thinking people" don't want to accept

  • colorblindkid||

    True. A black kid raised in a household with his married biological parents is far better off than a white kid in a single parent household, and that effect often even overcomes differences in wealth.

  • colorblindkid||

    Also, a poor white person is just as likely to be shot by a cop than a poor black person, which is why twice as many white people are killed every year. It's just that nobody gives a shit about poor white people because they probably vote Republican in rural areas, and all the black police killings in the news happen in Democrat-run urban areas.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    cite?

  • colorblindkid||

    Here is a report done under Obama in 2011 on 18 years of data. Black men are 7x more likely to commit murder than white men.

    http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4863

    And go check out WaPo's police violence tracker for 2017. Just over twice as many white men killed by police than black men. For unarmed shootings, the numbers are 30 and 20.

    There also happen to be about twice as many white people living in poverty the black people.

    Now because there are a lot more white people in America, the poverty and police death rates are between 2x and 3x as high for black men, which is a problem partially due to historical oppression, but that gap is less than half as wide as the violent crime and murder gap.

    A correlation between violent crime and police shootings should exist, so if anything, police are less willing to shoot black men.

  • buybuydandavis||

    It would be interesting to see whether IQ or family structure was more predictive

  • cereal_shake||

    Speaking of which, it's well-documented that racial minorities are disciplined at disproportionate rates

    Disproportionate to what?

  • buybuydandavis||

    Shhh!

    You'll ruin The Narrative!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Can't we just have racial quotas for the good things that people want?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I still don't understand why the government doesn't just mandate good things, and ban bad things.

    It makes no sense except that the corporations are standing in the way.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I used to be the executive director of an organization called The Center for Good Things that People Want.

    It was dash-tricky to come to a consensus in meetings, and I was the only attendee.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "The Obama-era policies have been blamed for the mass shooting in Parkland: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) claimed that the guidance "arguably made it easier for schools to not report students to law enforcement than deal with the potential consequences," the implication being that school authorities did not properly deal with Nikolas Cruz because they were operating under federal constraints. The Broward County school board and the sheriff's department—run by the blame-dodging Sheriff Scott Israel—had made an agreement to suspend and arrest fewer students."

    Buries the lede.

    Doesn't fit The Narrative.

    The greatest contributor to the Parkland Massacre was government *policy* in Broward County, pushed by the Obama administration, titled "Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline", in which the Schools, Courts, and Police agreed not to uphold the law on student offenders

    Coulter in THE SCHOOL-TO-MASS-MURDER PIPELINE:
    School and law enforcement officials knew Cruz was a ticking time bomb. They did nothing because of a deliberate, willful, bragged-about policy to end the "school-to-prison pipeline."
    In a stroke of genius, they realized that the only problem criminals have is that people keep lists of their criminal activities...
    http://www.anncoulter.com/columns/2018-02-28.html

    Coulter:
    This primitive, stone-age thinking was made official Broward County policy in a Nov. 5, 2013, agreement titled "Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline."

  • buybuydandavis||

    The first "whereas" clause of the agreement states that "the use of arrests and referrals to the criminal justice system may decrease a student's chance of graduation, entering higher education, joining the military and getting a job."

    COLLABORATIVE AGREEMENT ON SCHOOL DISCIPLINE
    THIS AGREEMENT
    is made and entered into as of this 5 day of November, 2013, by and between
    THE SCHOOL BOARD OF BROWARD COUNTY, FLORIDA
    https://goo.gl/Ewbczc

    Follow up article
    Coulter in RACIAL QUOTAS KILL KIDS:
    http://www.anncoulter.com/columns/2018-03-07.html

  • Don't look at me.||

    Are we ever going to be able to get over the whole race thing? Will we ever be so mixed as to not be able to differentiate between ourselves?

  • buybuydandavis||

    Go ask the Japanese.

  • Eidde||

    Plenty of countries have tried that, but then everyone gets all excited about what proportion of what you have, or who's "pure-blooded," or which mixes are better than others, etc.

  • Dick Puller, Attorney at Law||

    All I can tell you about that is that I ain't ever seen it happen. But for the some reason, the diversicrats, like old communists, keep insisting It Will Work If Done The Right Way.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Government-mandated cross breeding?

  • Harvard||

    Simple solution to most education problems that the ruling class have no knowledge or experience with. Privatize education. Allow everyone the opportunity to attend a private school that won't put up with these issues. Doubtful that Cruz would have lasted long at any DC private academy.

  • Longtobefree||

    "Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school."

    What percent of the offending population are black?
    Any government policy or program should be color blind. Even talking about this is racist on it face.

    Of course, the actual solution is to get the feds out of education.

  • ||

    Statistics like this are meaningless unless you can show that the disparity is due to racism. He does not even try to make that case. It is a leftist collectivism identity politics assumption that unequal outcomes = racism.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Speaking of which, it's well-documented that racial minorities are disciplined at disproportionate rates. A Government Accountability Office study...

    Also from that GAO report, Hispanics and Asians are underrepresented in virtually all 6 disciplinary categories (Fig. 2), so apparently that means you're only a minority if you're black. Or, as usual, you're a lazy-ass hack.

    And if we look at self-reporting data of fighting what do we see?

    From the Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2017:

    The percentages of students in grades 9–12 who reported being in a physical fight differed by race/ethnicity. For example, in 2015 a higher percentage of Black students (32 percent) reported being in
    a physical fight anywhere during the previous 12 months than did Hispanic students (23 percent), White students (20 percent), and Asian students (15 percent; figure 13.2 and table 13.1).
  • Rev. Arthur Ꮮ. Kirkland||

    Hispanics are whites with Native American ancestry, just like Elizabeth Warren, so they're not a minority except in the way that Elizabeth Warren is a minority. And Asians are not just white, they're ultra-white, which is why FDR had to put them in concentration camps, lest they rally to support Hitler.

  • Barry Gold||

    To answer the implied question in the headline of this piece, how about:

    Because it's none of their foxtrotting business.

  • flyfishnevada||

    Thank God the federal government is here to tinker is broad, sweeping issues like student discipline.

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  • Mark22||

    Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is debating whether to rescind Obama-era instructions to discipline fewer minority students. Would she be right to do so? It's complicated.

    No, it's not complicated at all: race and minority status should never be a criterion per se to affect how government treats you. Only a racist would think that there is anything "complicated" about that.

  • ||

    "A Government Accountability Office study released last month found that "Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school.""

    It's frustrating how often Reason writers join the collectivism of the left and play the identity politics game. This statistical fact is only an issue if you can show racism is the cause of this disparity. Otherwise you are seeking equal outcomes rather than fair outcomes regarding school discipline.

    I don't even get why this statistic was inserted into this otherwise thoughtful article.

  • CarolAnn||

    "If you take a step back, what you will find is that the overall rate of violence in schools is declining," Stephen Brock, a professor at California State University, " Does it occur to him that the rate is declining because incidents are't being reported?

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