Explainer – Betsy DeVos and School Discipline

 In Call to Action

Hope for Students has released an Open Letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in response to her comments about school discipline and subsequent efforts by the Trump Administration to roll-back Federal guidelines that currently protect some of our nation’s most vulnerable students from unequal punishment. The open letter has been signed by more than 20,000 people.

Here’s what you need to know:

In the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has signaled her intention to revisit, and potentially overturn, an Obama-era school discipline guidance jointly authored by the Department of Education and Department of Justice in 2014 as a Dear Colleague letter.

The departments released the guidance in response to Federal civil rights data showing students of color and students with disabilities are punished more often and more severely than white students. For example:

African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although African-American students represent 15% of students, they make up 35% of students suspended once, 44% of those suspended more than once, and 36% of students expelled. Further, over 50% of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.

The guidance offered by DOJ and DOE in this letter represents an important step forward towards ensuring our schools treats all students equitably, regardless of race or ability. It’s our view that these rules need to be protected and strengthened. Weakening or repealing these rules (or refusing to enforce them) harms our ability to ensure that all God’s children receive a high quality education, especially the most vulnerable.

In a March 2018 interview on 60 Minutes, Secretary DeVos refused to say if she was troubled by data showing unequal punishment of black and white students for the same infraction, or if she believed this represented institutional racism, saying, “Arguably, all of these issues comes down to individual kids.”

The very next day, the Trump Administration announced the creation of a School Safety Task Force, chaired by Secretary DeVos, that is expected to make a recommendations on whether to repeal the 2014 guidance.

Putting aside how troubling it is that the Trump Administration is using legitimate public concerns about school safety as an excuse to potentially make it easier to punish students of color—it’s even more troubling to consider the potential impact of repealing existing guidance when the facts show a systemwide problem.