Politics & Policy

The Office for Civil Rights Jumps to Conclusions on School Discipline


We have many reasons to be troubled by the Left’s push to dramatically reduce the use of suspensions and expulsions by public schools to impose discipline and order. At the top of the list is the worry that disorder and violence will return to high-poverty schools across the land, putting the safety and learning of poor and minority students at even greater risk. This is hardly hypothetical; it’s already happening, report teachers in New York, Minnesota, and elsewhere.

But an even more fundamental question is whether school-discipline “reformers” are diagnosing the problem correctly. Many analysts and activists look at national, state, and local data illustrating large disparities in discipline rates between racial subgroups and interpret them as indicators of racial discrimination or bias. Why else would African Americans and Latinos be suspended or expelled at much higher rates than whites or Asians?

Of course it’s true that, in a continental system of 50 million children and 100,000 schools, instances of minority children being treated unfairly will occur. A white teenager pulls a fire alarm and gets a slap on the wrist; a black ten-year-old does the same and gets a week’s suspension. That’s wrong and is a legitimate target for civil-rights enforcers.

But discrimination isn’t the only possible explanation for disparities in discipline rates. What about disparities in actual student infractions? Nobody seriously thinks that boys are suspended and expelled at dramatically higher rates than girls because of gender bias; everyone understands that boys, for a host of reasons, are much more likely to exhibit violent or antisocial behavior. Yet raise the possibility that kids from some racial groups are likelier to exhibit violent or antisocial behavior than others — not because of their race but because of other factors in their lives — and you risk getting labeled a racist.

Consider another analogy: the racial gap in academic achievement. Few reputable scholars contend that it’s caused exclusively by racial bias or discrimination. Most would say that less money for minority schools, less-experienced teachers, and a past history of redlining and unintentional or unspoken racial bias (e.g., lower expectations for racial minorities, white flight) are partial explanations.

But no serious analyst would ignore the role of background characteristics. African-American and Latino students are, tragically, much more likely to be poor than white and Asian students; much, much more likely to be living in long-term or deep poverty; and more likely, too, to grow up with only one parent or with parents who didn’t complete high school. We know that all of these factors are related, on average, to lower test scores. That’s why much of the racial-achievement gap is already present when students start kindergarten. Could our schools be doing more to close the gap in grades K–12? Should we fund our schools more equitably? Should we launch an all-out attack on teachers’ biases? Yes, yes, and yes. But we’ve learned not to look at the achievement gap and place 100 percent of the blame on the schools.

So why do we take a completely different approach when it comes to discipline? Children growing up in poverty, in single-parent homes where the fathers are absent, and in violent neighborhoods are more likely to act out in school. African-American and Latino children are more likely to endure these harsh life circumstances than their white and Asian peers.

Children growing up in poverty, in single-parent homes where the fathers are absent, and in violent neighborhoods are more likely to act out at school.

Some scholars have looked at these questions and find that poverty and related factors can’t explain all of the racial disparity in discipline rates for minority and for non-minority students. (The same is true of the achievement gap.) Perhaps that’s because their data sets don’t have the best indicators for poverty, or their findings may indicate true racial bias and discrimination. But even these scholars, who are also strong advocates of discipline reform, acknowledge that background factors do explain some of the disparity.

That brings us to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. As many of us have noted before, OCR has published guidance explaining that it will investigate racial disparities in discipline rates and that it may find school districts guilty of discrimination even if they have a race-neutral discipline policy that is implemented on an even-handed basis. In other words, even if there’s no evidence of discrimination, the fact that certain racial groups are disciplined disproportionately is enough for OCR to find that students’ civil rights have been violated.

Put aside that Orwellian logic for a moment. One would think that OCR would, at a minimum, strive to control for poverty when doing their analyses. In other words, if OCR is going to go down this road, surely it should be careful not to identify the wrong school districts as over-disciplining certain groups of students. If it fails to take these pains, we might expect social scientists across the political and ideological spectrum to sing out. We might even hope that the American Education Research Association would issue a statement decrying the practice.

Think again.

Last week brought news that the Oklahoma City school district agreed to settle a complaint with OCR. At the heart of the federal case was the fact that African-American students are 62 percent more likely to be given in-school suspensions in Oklahoma City than are white students.

That was it. As far as I can tell, nobody found instances of black youngsters being penalized more harshly than white kids for the same infractions. Nor did anybody ask whether African-American children were at greater risk for misbehavior due to poverty and related factors. In Oklahoma City, African-Americans are three times likelier to live in poverty than are whites. We should be surprised that Oklahoma City’s racial disparity in school-discipline rates isn’t larger.

So now Oklahoma City will suspend fewer students, putting student learning and safety at risk, because nobody was willing to challenge the federal government’s questionable assumptions. Oklahoma politicians were up in arms over the feds’ heavy-handedness on the Common Core; why are they so willing to be pushed around on student discipline?

Children have a right to be safe in school and not overly disturbed by their own classmates when trying to learn. Nobody deserves to be subjected to violence and disorder. But neither should any student be subjected to discrimination in how penalties are handed out. Getting this right takes good judgment, and hard work. The Office for Civil Rights appears to be coming up far short on both counts.

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