The Fate of the Federal School Discipline Guidance

Guy Johnson | Sr. Program Director, Federal and National Networks, Partners for Each and Every Child

For more information and context, please our previous blog on this topic, “What You Should Know about the School Safety Debate and School Discipline Guidance.”


Last week, Betsy DeVos, Secretary of the United States Department of Education (US ED), convened a "School Safety and Climate Summit" that was closed to press coverage and did not appear on the Secretary’s published schedule. The “Summit” consisted of two separate sessions with supporters and opponents of the current guidance on school discipline, each lasting approximately 90 minutes. It was not entirely clear prior to the summit precisely what groups and individuals had been invited to participate, nor on what basis they, and not others, had been selected.

The summit was one of a series of meetings that DeVos has held with members of the public over the past few months regarding the impact of the current discipline guidance. US ED has not given any details as to how it is weighing feedback obtained from these meetings, nor as to how or when it may rescind or replace the guidance.  

Also yesterday, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office released a report on school discipline showing that black students continue to be vastly overrepresented in the rates at which they are suspended from school. As is customary, US ED neither publicly acknowledged nor responded to the report.

With this in mind, it is also worth remembering that President Trump recently designated Betsy DeVos as the leader of a new Federal Commission on School Safety that is charged, in part, with examining the repeal of the Obama administration’s guidance on anti-discriminatory school discipline practices. That commission met for the first time last week, in a session that was also closed to press and the public. You may have noticed a trend by now.

The entire membership of the school safety commission consists of current members of the President’s cabinet: Secretary DeVos, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. As the former staff director for a federal commission, I’m a bit biased in favor of commissions: they can be a way to advance transparency in deliberations about policy, they present an opportunity to ensure they key constituency groups literally have “a seat at the table” in decision-making, and they can be an effective venue for aggregating and sharing out relevant data and information.

The Federal Commission on School Safety has not yet had a public meeting, has not yet publicly shared any draft agendas or meeting materials, and has no members that directly represent parents, teachers, schools, states, and/or civil rights groups.

It is morbidly fascinating that the administration remains so resolutely opaque regarding how or when it intends to update, refine, or rescind a guidance intended to protect students with disabilities and students of color from discriminatory practices in the administration of school discipline.

Taking at face value what deliberations might currently be underway, it seems at least possible that there could be better ways to reduce discrimination in school discipline than the ways offered by  the current guidance. Actually, this is precisely the point of the prior administration's approach: the guidance was built from data in the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC); it was part of a more comprehensive effort to present legal requirements in a context that included primers on related topics, information about needed supports for school staff, and various ways to continue and deepen the conversation through conferences, webinars, social media events and blogs.

The very development of the current school discipline guidance was premised on two closely held ideas: one, that policy reform should affirmatively prioritize the needs and interests of the most underserved groups; two, that policy reform should be enriched by ongoing discussions about how to refine the data that informs the policy and how to improve the practices that implement the policy.

This is in stark comparison to what we are seeing now. Take, for instance, the small note at the bottom of a recent US ED press release regarding the inaugural meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety. The last sentence blithely states that “those with recommendations on how to increase school safety can send them to” And that is that. Please feel free to send your ideas to an unnamed person at a possibly unstaffed email account for possible consideration at some point yet to come in some as-yet unarticulated process. Good luck!

Such inattention to the voices of marginalized and underserved communities of color, to the interest of marginalized and underserved students with disabilities, is either folly or malice. The question of clownishness or venom is only heightened considering these are a set of policies intended to improve the ability of disadvantaged groups to participate equally and meaningfully in their public education. That being said, perhaps there are other, more benign rationales behind the current administration's approach. If only we were at all privy to the deliberative process of Betsy DeVos, or of US ED, or of the Federal Commission on School Safety, we might offer a more favorable analysis.