The federal Department of Education has withdrawn 2014 guidance on school discipline that led schools to severely curtail suspensions. This is a welcome sign that federal officials recognize good intentions don't outweigh real-world impacts, because the guidance document was mostly credited with making schools less safe for students and teachers.
The document advised schools they could be considered in violation of federal anti-discrimination law if racial disparities existed in student suspension rates. In essence, if black pupils comprised 30 percent of a student body but 50 percent of suspensions, that fact alone could be considered a sign of racism. This was true even if black and white students were treated the same way in comparable situations. The mere existence of statistical difference was considered a sign of institutional racism.
Thus, schools adopted policies that dramatically reduced suspensions. Included was Oklahoma City, which was investigated by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights following a complaint. Suspensions did decline, but that fueled classroom management problems.
Last year, Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, told The Oklahoman, "What I hear is the behavior is still the same and lots of principals are telling their teachers, 'Sorry, I can't suspend,' even when the code of conduct is being violated. The district will deny that they send that message out to principals, but that's what we are hearing."
In 2017, the AFT presented the results of a union survey that found nearly half of Oklahoma City teachers reported having a student with a chronic discipline problem who should not be in the classroom. Between 75 percent and 80 percent of teachers polled said they had students who either failed to comply with classroom rules or refused to complete work. About 70 percent said they endured "disruptive outbursts" that "impede the learning process," and 61 percent said students had used "foul language."
Oklahoma City's challenges gained national attention. Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley wrote last week, "In Oklahoma City, principals told teachers not to request a suspension 'unless there was blood.'"
We weren't alone in having these problems. Riley reported that after adoption of suspension-reduction policies, teachers in Los Angeles and Chicago "reported more disorder, and students reported feeling less safe." In New York, "schools with the highest percentages of minority students were more likely to experience an increase in fighting, gang activity and drug use."
Riley, who is black, also noted many schools where "these uneven discipline rates persist have minority principals and no shortage of minority teachers and administrators." In other words, the Department of Education was assuming black teachers were racially discriminating against black students. That makes little sense.
If students commit the same infraction but are given different punishments, that should be addressed. But if all students are treated the same, regardless of race, then schools shouldn't have to worry about civil rights lawsuits. It's good news the Department of Education now acknowledges that reality.