How the Obama Administration Eroded School Discipline

Gregory Hood, American Renaissance, March 26, 2018

The notorious “Dear Colleague Letter.”

On March 12, The Heritage Foundation hosted a panel called “Less Discipline, More Disorder” on the ruinous consequences of Obama Administration policies aimed at equalizing school discipline rates by race. The panel showed both courage and cowardice. The panelists were right about the impact of the Obama Administration’s education policies, but ignored the political reality that such policies are almost a political inevitability in racially diverse schools.

The Obama Administration’s January 2014 “Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL) to American school departments asserted that “substantial racial disparities” in school discipline rates “are not explained by more frequent or more serious behavior by students of color.” Therefore, these “significant and unexplained racial disparities in student discipline give rise to concerns that schools may be engaging in racial discrimination that violates the Federal civil rights laws.” Thus, to prevent discrimination, the Departments of Justice and Education could launch federal investigations that could easily ruin careers of teachers, administrators, or principals. The DCL also mentions “settlement agreements and consent decrees” (similar to those imposed on police departments) as ways to resolve these investigations.

The panel moderator, Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, said the DCL was nothing less than a bombshell. Because racial disparities in suspension rates could spark a federal investigation, “that threat alone” was enough to scare schools into changing their discipline policies. The results were predictable. Suspension rates declined, but, as Miss Burke noted, evidence suggests schools became “less orderly” and “less safe.”

The first speaker was Professor Gail Heriot of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, who dismantled the legal rationale for the DCL. Professor Heriot argued that school discipline should not be a federal issue, stressing that a proper interpretation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would mean that the federal government should investigate only actual allegations of racial discrimination. Professor Heriot argued that the DCL is a distortion of Title VI because it told schools they could have funding cut off merely for disparate impact as opposed to actual discrimination. She said the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that Title VI outlaws only actual race discrimination, not disparate impact.

Professor Heriot noted that “liability for disparate impact” would create giant problems because almost every school policy has a disparate impact. She wondered whether basketball hoops would have to be lowered to make it easier for Asian-Americans—who are shorter on average—to make the team. She also argued that school discipline is best handled locally.

Professor Heriot said that schools interpreted the DCL as: “Don’t discipline a minority student unless you’re confident you can persuade some future federal investigator whose judgment you have no reason to trust that it was justified.” Since disciplining a minority means “jumping through time-consuming procedural hoops” to ensure sufficient documentation to ward off investigation, the “easier solution is simply not to discipline minority students.” The need to avoid “bad numbers” governs behavior. She might have added that no teacher wants to be smeared by the media once the media report a federal investigation into “racism.”

Professor Heriot touched on the DCL’s core flaw:

Nobody disputes that African-American students are disciplined at higher rates than white students or Asian students nationally. But what if the reason for that is that African-American students misbehave more often? And what if the cost of failure to discipline those students falls on their fellow African-American students who are trying to learn amid classroom disorder?

Incidentally, I should point out that white students get disciplined at rates higher than Asian students and that boys get disciplined much more than girls, and yet no one seems really interested in those bad numbers.

Professor Heriot said there is no doubt that students from disadvantaged schools are disciplined more often. When the socioeconomic disadvantage is controlled for, the black white difference shrinks “dramatically,” but does not disappear. She said the most likely explanation for disparities is that teachers are being “honest.”

Discipline disparities are a chicken-and-egg problem. The professor referred to a study, “Prior Problem Behavior Accounts for Racial Gap in School Suspensions,” which finds that “prior problem behavior of the student” accounts for the racial gap in suspensions. Black students are more likely to be disruptive and to start being disruptive young. Students who are disruptive tend to be disruptive throughout their school careers unless checked by discipline.

The professor noted that the Obama Administration’s DCL forced schools to back away from discipline generally, while establishing a de facto dual track system. Discipline was reduced for everyone, but whites and Asians were held to a stricter standard than blacks, because they could still be punished without it becoming, quite literally, a federal case. As Ann Coulter put it in a recent column on the DCL, “To comply, schools would have to stop suspending black kids for breaking a teacher’s jaw, but suspend Asians for dropping an eraser.”

Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute, the next speaker, noted that “this was not guidance, these were orders.” Since the only real test of “discrimination” was numbers, it’s not surprising schools focused on lowering the numbers of minority students who were punished. Any school that didn’t was going to “face an investigation.”

Mr. Eden called the effects of the DCL “breathtaking.” He showed that the Department of Education’s “investigations” were really “prosecutions” that were “pretexts” to force lower standards on school districts. An investigation of the Oklahoma City school system found no evidence to support accusations of racism. Teachers were not even consulted. Yet the federal government forced a policy change. In Milwaukee, the federal government forced through lower disciplinary standards without even notifying the school board an investigation was going on. “So much for local control,” said Mr. Eden.

Mr. Eden said we know “terrifyingly little” about how these policies impact school discipline, because much of the discipline information is either unavailable, or it is just being made up by administrators who want to avoid bad numbers. If the numbers are made up, “lazy reporters” can take them as proof that schools are getting safer, when they may actually be more dangerous. For example, Washington, D.C., reported a 40 percent drop in suspensions, but principals didn’t stop suspending people; they just stopped reporting it to the district.

Mr. Eden said Miami also stopped reporting suspensions and fights. In a reference to the Parkland massacre, Mr. Eden said Sheriff Israel of Broward County bragged that arrests were down, but “that tends to happen when you stop arresting; that does not mean schools are safer.”

Mr. Eden claimed that after the DCL, Philadelphia schools saw a drop in academic achievement and more truancy. Interestingly, black students actually spent more time out of school on suspension after the DCL than before. Mr. Eden speculated that this was because of a rise in “serious” incidents. In other words, when schools aren’t allowed to enforce basic norms using tools like suspensions, bigger problems actually become more common.

According to Mr. Eden, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, suspensions in New York City were allowed only after a third non-violent incident, and after a teacher sent detailed documentation to a central office for approval. This correlated with a “dramatic” increase in fights and gang activity. “Rules had changed and the students knew it,” said Mr. Eden.

Mr. Eden argued that at the national level, teachers’ unions mostly oppose suspensions and support the DCL. They argue that strict disciplinary standards are a product of institutional racism, “which is kind of a funny thing to say, given that they are the institution.” However, at a local level, teachers’ unions are far more interested in student and teacher safety. Local surveys show teachers believe they are losing control. He cited a survey from Buffalo, New York, in which an astonishing 81 percent of teachers suggested administrators underreport disciplinary problems. ”Why should we think Buffalo is unique?” he asked.

Mr. Eden explained that “teachers are afraid of being called racist if they speak out for the safety of their students.” Mr. Eden concluded by asking: “Why today, one year into the Trump Administration, do we still have an Obama policy that forces districts to abandon traditional discipline without regard to student safety, a policy that encourages administrators to suppress records of disturbing violent behavior?”

The third speaker was Robert Pondiscioof the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He thinks much of the racial achievement gap is caused by lost instruction time for non-white children because there is so much disruption in class.

He cited a poll from teachers about ten years ago in which 17 percent of teachers said they lost more than four hours a week due to disruptive behavior, with an additional 19 percent losing two to three hours. In urban secondary schools, 24 percent lost four or more hours. Mr. Pondiscio says he has taught mostly non-white students from low performing districts and claims this study “aligns perfectly” with his own experience. He argued that because there is no simple, top-down solution, there should be a return to local control.

Virginia Walden Ford of DC Parents for School Choice was the sole black on the panel. She offered anecdotal evidence that the DCL has driven well-behaved students away from schools, because administrators stopped punishing miscreants who start fights. In some cases, students stayed home out of fear for their safety. Students who enjoy misbehavior know they can get away with anything. They know if they misbehave at church they will be punished, but they see school as a free-for-all.

Miss Ford spoke about a teacher who retired because she could no longer discipline students. She spoke of students running through the school screaming obscenities, to the indifference of authorities. Even knife fights were met with inaction. Miss Ford described schools as a “battleground” because teachers are afraid to do anything since the DCL.

In the Q&A session, Mr. Eden explained why the DCL policies are still in place despite opposition: “Either you are for this guidance [the Obama Administration’s DCL], or you somehow support systematic racism or the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Of course, it is in poor-performing school districts that strong discipline is most needed to maintain order and let students learn. Many of the students in such districts are non-white, so any federal policy that decreases school discipline tends to hurt them.

However, there is nearly monolithic black and Hispanic support for leftist politicians, and this affects issues far beyond school discipline. For example, the mayor of Baltimore managed to find $100,000 to bus students from her city to Washington, D.C., to protest gun rights at a time when schools have been closing early because there is no money for heat. There is little risk of local officials being held responsible for poor school performance given the almost total lack of political opposition. Therefore, in many cases, even returning to “local control” would do little good.

The situation in schools is similar to that of police departments. Because of “disparate impact,” the Obama Administration pushed “consent decrees” on many departments to crack down on alleged racial bias in law enforcement. As with schools, this was forced by the federal government, with little pretense of local control. The Trump Administration’s Department of Justice has eased up on these decrees, but no similar action has been taken by the Department of Education. A federal power grab with questionable legality and asserted by a leftist government remains in place under a supposedly conservative administration.

The official view is that racial differences in test scores, behavior, and intelligence can be explained only by racism, so why shouldn’t the federal government investigate school districts where there are disparities? Indeed, studies claiming that “prior problem behavior” explains this gap could be evidence only that “institutional racism” starts early. Once stigmatized as troublemakers, why wouldn’t otherwise innocent blacks or Hispanics continue down a destructive path?

These problems are not new, nor traceable to the DCL. One of the most popular pieces on American Renaissance, “A White Teacher Speaks Out,” dates from 1999. Yet it chronicles many of today’s problems, including blacks’ disrespect for authority, propensity for crime and violence, and contempt for learning. Obviously, there are exceptions, and one can’t help feeling sorry for blacks who actually want to learn. Their classrooms should be protected with stern discipline. Yet if such discipline is imposed by white teachers and has a disparate impact, it is likely to create greater racial tension. Black leaders will naturally campaign against it.

The hard reality is that different races have different capabilities and cultures and learn differently. Forcing students of different races into the same template fails, particularly when efforts by white teachers to discipline non-whites are called racism.

White parents around the country, whatever their stated politics, are fleeing diverse schools and trying to put their children in mostly white schools. A major goal for white advocates should be to make this explicit. What is needed is not just local control but racial self-determination. The Heritage Foundation’s panel highlighted the problem but not the solution—and considering Heritage’s history of purging race realists, this is as far as it is likely to go.

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Gregory Hood
Mr. Hood is a staff writer for American Renaissance. He has been active in conservative groups in the US.
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