Sweeping new federal school-discipline guidelines designed to keep children safe could have the opposite effect in Philadelphia and beyond, some experts said Tuesday.
A panel led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday called for the cancellation of an Obama administration policy designed to address racial disparities in school discipline and discriminatory treatment of students of color and those with disabilities.
That 2014 guidance, called “Rethink School Discipline,” warned schools that they could be violating civil rights laws if they enforced discriminatory rules or their policies led to disproportionate disciplinary rates for students of a single race. Critics asserted such guidance caused a chilling effect, leaving schools afraid to discipline problem students for fear of federal incursion and administrative pushback.
“Where well-meaning but flawed policies endanger student safety, they must be changed,” said a report issued by the DeVos panel.
Others saw the new guidance as a step in the wrong direction.
“The panel’s report communicates that the federal government is no longer interested in protecting the civil rights of students,” said Reynelle Brown Staley, policy director at the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center-Pennsylvania.
Students of color and those with disabilities are punished more severely than white and non-disabled peers for similar offenses, data show. A Government Accountability Office report in April found that black students account for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but 39 percent of students suspended from school.
The new recommendations came out of the Federal Commission on School Safety, which was formed in the wake of the February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17. President Trump pressed the group to deliver recommendations to improve school safety.
In a 177-page report, the panel tackled topics ranging from character development education to violent video games. It recommended bolstering mental-health services, but suggested leaving to schools the decision on whether to arm teachers and other school staff, noting that schools were permitted to use some federal money for weapons training.
“Our conclusions in this report do not impose one-size-fits-all solutions for everyone everywhere,” DeVos said in a news conference. “Local problems need local solutions. This report seeks to identify options that policymakers should explore.”
But the recommendation around the “Rethink School Discipline” guidance drew swift and fierce criticism.
If formally adopted, the new guidelines would not supersede the law, Staley said. Any school that discriminates against students on the basis of race, sex, disability or another protected class would still be acting illegally.
“But as a parent," she said, "it’s troubling to know that if you find that your child is being subject to unfair discipline because of their race or disability status, you can no longer go to the U.S. Department of Education.”
Lily Eskelin Garcia, president of the National Educators Association, the country’s largest teachers' union, called it “shameful” that the administration was using the risk of gun violence to strip students of their civil rights. “Students deserve real solutions that will keep them safe — that is what our students have asked of us," she said in a statement.
The National PTA sounded similar themes. And the new guidance also worried Julien Terrell, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, a student organizing group that has long advocated for schools' moving away from policing and harsh discipline policies, which he said seemed to be endorsed in the report.
“These mass school shootings are not happening at urban schools, but urban schools are getting the investments in school police" that lead too many youths to early interactions with the criminal justice system, Terrell said.
During testimony in Washington this month about the anticipated rollback of the guidelines, Philadelphia student Nayeli Perez urged officials to focus resources on supporting students instead of hiring more officers and beefing up security.
“Instead of suspensions, give students an avenue where we can improve and develop," said Perez, a student at the Academy at Palumbo, a South Philadelphia magnet school. "Instead of arming teachers with firearms, arm them with the tools they need to help each of their students succeed.”