What you should know about the school safety debate and school discipline guidance

By Justin Lam | Research and Analysis Fellow, Partners for Each and Every Child

This weekend, thousands of people are expected to rally across the country to advocate for gun control. This comes on the heels of last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which has sparked a debate on school violence—but has also been linked by commentators and politicians to U.S. Department of Education guidance designed to reduce just that.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice released national school discipline guidance to help schools address the discriminatory roots of some discipline practices, including student suspension and expulsion. Last week, President Trump announced that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would lead a school safety commission that is charged, in part, with examining the repeal of these Obama administration’s “Rethink School Discipline” policies.

“Rethink School Discipline” has come into the forefront of the national conversation not only following Sen. Marco Rubio’s allegation that the guidance contributed to the shooting, but after months of calls from conservative commentators for rescission of the guidance and a contentious U.S. Commission on Human Rights hearing on the issue in December 2017.

Our stake in the current debate around the relationship between school shootings and the guidance focuses on how the guidance was developed, what the guidance means, and why it matters for our nation’s schools.

Four decades of research and input

Students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth experience suspensions, expulsions, and school-related arrests at disproportionately higher rates than their peers. Such gaps have been documented as far back as 1975, when a Children’s Defense Fund report found that “widespread discrimination” was behind these disparities.

Four decades later, a 2011 report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that black students were 31 percent more likely to be punished for discretionary behavior than their white or Hispanic peers, and found evidence for the school-to-prison pipeline. What followed were years of stakeholder interviews, convenings, and research on the issue of school discipline.

Guidance is guidance

That is why the federal Department of Education and Department of Justice created the “Rethink School Discipline” guidance: to improve school climates and help schools identify, avoid and replace discipline practices with either a discriminatory basis or impact. The guidance included a letter describing how schools could meet their obligations under federal law to avoid discriminatory discipline practices; principles and action steps for states, districts, and schools; a directory of federal resources; and a compilation of laws and regulations related to school discipline in each state.

The federal Department of Education and Department of Justice are jointly responsible for implementing our nation’s civil rights laws, including Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, and makes compliance a key condition for federal funding.

Because rescinding the guidance will not change the law, schools—independent of the guidance—will still be prohibited from discriminating against students, including when it comes to discipline, and the education department will still have to respond to complaints of discrimination. What the guidance offers is increased clarity from the federal government as to the interpretation of the law, including practical examples of legal compliance and best practices. The act of rescinding this guidance, when no replacement has been identified, sends either or both of two worrisome messages: that the federal government is unconcerned with enforcing anti-discrimination laws with regards to school discipline; that the government no longer has a clear understanding what the law requires in this area.

Why the federal role matters

Research has shown promising reductions in violence and benefits to school climate aligned with the contents of the guidance and a subsequent grant program. Rescission of the guidance with no replacement presents a step backward in ensuring our students have the social and emotional learning supports they need to succeed.

Moreover, rescinding the guidance for political purposes undercuts the value of the diverse perspectives that informed the development of the guidance. Rescission of the guidance in this way would run counter to measured, deliberate efforts to listen to the needs of students, educators, parents, administrators, and community members in supporting our students. It would run counter to the kind of meaningful engagement and dialogue that informed the development of the guidance, and is at odds with the respectful and thoughtful national conversation on these issues that is being called for by the student organizers of this weekend’s march.

Where we go from here

In our next post, we’ll explore the process that led to the Obama-era guidance and will share  the experiences of educators who have been working to implement and improve upon the guidance since 2014.

In the meantime, please take action this week to reflect upon the guidance and its impact for underserved students in your community. Visit the Dignity in Schools website to learn more.


Justin Lam is a Research and Analysis Fellow for the Partners for Each and Every Child Project. He is a current Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.