December 15, 2017

Urge Trump Administration to Close Discipline Disparities

By Josh Crosson

Last Friday, the United States Commission on Civil Rights held a daylong hearing to investigate how school pushout disproportionately harms students of color and students with disabilities. In response to the Office of Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Education showing interest in repealing Obama-era guidance meant to close discipline disparities, the USCCR sought to hear from school-to-prison pipeline experts, data wonks, former officials from the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education, educators, and families. This hearing (recapped below) kicked off an opportunity for advocates to share their stories and expertise on school discipline disparities with the commission—currently led by a majority of former Obama-appointees— and encourage the Trump administration to disrupt, not strengthen, the school-to-prison pipeline.


Chair Catherine E. Lhamon opened with a story of a California school district that the Office of Civil Rights flagged for discriminatory discipline practices. She explained this district’s constant mistreatment of Native American students, citing one instance where a Native American student—in their first disciplinary referral of the year—received an out-of-school suspension after slapping another student. Meanwhile, a white student who, in their fifth and sixth disciplinary referrals for the year, slapped two students was disciplined only with lunch detention and a conference with the other students.

While Lhamon’s remarks focused on transforming school discipline through a racial justice lens, the Commission’s newer appointees countered with troubling comments and an approach to discipline that would further exacerbate disparities facing students of color and students with disabilities. Commissioners Peter Kirsanow and Gail Heriot—Trump’s two lone appointees—drew frequent boos from the diverse audience of parents, educators, and advocates. Commissioner Heriot blamed “social justice warriors”—a term she used as a pejorative—for our school’s problems, while Commissioner Kirsanow called Minneapolis’ attempts to reduce suspensions and expulsions “an unlawful quota system” that dictates whom the district can and cannot push out.

Eve Hill, a former official for the U.S. Department of Justice, responded to correct Kirsanow’s assumptions: “Minneapolis is setting goals to reduce the discriminatory impact of discipline.” Advocate Marylyn Tillman from Dignity in Schools pushed the commission and audience to completely rethink the very notion of “discipline,” which is often used synonymously with suspensions and expulsions. Instead, discipline must be a teachable moment for children to learn important lessons about boundaries and expectations in the classroom and beyond. “Discipline really means, ‘to teach,’” Tillman said.


Minnesota teachers and community members were well-represented at the D.C. hearing. Eleven-year teacher Christina Benz, a member of the advocacy group Educators for Excellence, testified that disparities in school pushout widen Minnesota’s nation-trailing achievement gaps. “[Students] don’t learn when they’re outside of the classroom,” she concluded. Another E4E member, Steve Shepherd, who taught in Minneapolis for over 20 years and now leads the district’s Positive Schoolwide Engagement department, also testified. “Through the Office of Civil Rights, we have been pushing for restorative practices…This is not a teacher OR student issue. This is a teacher AND student issue,” he said.

However, the Minnesota delegation was not entirely aligned in supporting restorative practices that work for our most underserved communities. Despite the objections of three other commissioners that it was out-of-order to read testimony on behalf of others, Commissioners Kirsanow and Heriot read comments from the often racially inflammatory commentator Katherine Kersten, who claims that students of color are predisposed to misbehavior and that schools and police should respond accordingly. Former Edina educator Debbie York alleged that school administrators bullied teachers into making the district’s discipline numbers look good by hiding evidence of student violence. Instead of advocating for greater school district oversight, and policies to require administrators keep kids and teachers safe, York concluded that we should instead repeal guidance that would flag unjust disparities in school pushout. Repealing the Obama-era guidance, she claims, “would allow schools to treat all students the same.”


We know that all students are not treated the same, both in Minnesota and across the country. Only one out of three Black, Native American, and Latino students in Minnesota read at grade level. Black, Native American, and special education students are more likely to be suspended and expelled than any other student group especially for nonviolent, subjective infractions. Students of color often learn from the least experienced educators, and are held to harmfully low standards. Implicit and explicit bias in and out of schools widen already vast disparities between white students and students of color. This is especially true for students of color with disabilities.

Thankfully, the Obama-era guidance—which urges schools to move away from pushing out our most underserved kids and towards long-term improvements to student behavior—is still in place. This hearing was just a preliminary step toward reviewing the policy and offering recommendations to the Trump administration on whether the country should continue to prioritize closing discipline disparities.

Now—before the USCCR’s commissioners with a commitment to equity and racial justice roll off—we have an opportunity to urge the commission to keep nondiscrimination a central tenet within the Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights. We’ve been reaching out already to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, as well as Minnesota state leaders, on this important issue. If you haven’t yet taken action, please click here to share your thoughts before the USCCR’s Jan. 18 deadline. You can also send comments by mail to: National Place Building, 1331 Pennsylvania Av. NW, Suite 1150, Washington, D.C. 20245.

Finally, stay tuned for future opportunities to engage with Minnesota’s Solutions Not Suspensions coalition. No matter what happens nationally, we’ll keep advocating to keep Minnesota students in school and engaged in learning.

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