Betsy DeVos urged to reverse Obama ‘Dear Colleague letter’ on school discipline
What the Obama-era discipline guidance has taught Nicole Landers is that your kids can be bullied, roughed up, even sexually assaulted, and the school won’t do a whole heck of a lot about it.
She said two of her sons have been picked on and threatened, while her 11-year-old daughter was repeatedly groped over the course of several months by a classmate. Even so, Ms. Landers said the boy was never suspended.
“Eventually I went in and met with the principal, and she told me that the other student has rights,” said Ms. Landers. “I told her she was conditioning my daughter to [accept] sexual aggression. I don’t understand how you can look at my daughter and tell me that she should tolerate her body parts being touched by this other student. No one should be asked to be put in that learning environment.”
She and her daughter, a Baltimore County Public Schools student, plan to share their experience at Wednesday’s roundtable with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who’s considering rescinding the 2014 Dear Colleague letter in her role as chair of the Trump administration’s newly formed Commission on School Safety.
The Office for Civil Rights directive has come under attack following the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, for helping create what critics describe as a permissive climate that allowed the shooter to remain in school despite multiple infractions.
While the guidance has been credited with lowering suspensions, expulsions and arrests at a number of K-12 districts, it’s also been accused of making schools more chaotic and dangerous as officials seek to curb discipline rates in order to avoid triggering a federal investigation.
Ann Miller, a member of the Baltimore County board of education, said Ms. Landers isn’t the only one concerned.
“She’s not an outlier at all. I’ve heard many, many cases. I have teachers and parents calling me on the phone regularly, crying,” said Ms. Miller. “I would say every couple of weeks there’s a student video of violent attacks in BCPS that’s posted on social media, or a news report. We see this regularly.”
At the same time, the summit will feature teachers and education advocates who argue that the federal guidance is needed to prevent minority and disabled students from winding up in the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Evan Stone, co-CEO and co-founder of Educators for Excellence, said that black students are suspended at three times the rates of white students, while those with disabilities, a category that includes conditions like ADHD, are twice as likely to be suspended or expelled.
The department “must continue to highlight the disparities that exist in school discipline, investigate districts where those disparities may be caused by bias, and support the implementation of strategies to reduce punitive discipline,” he said in a statement.
What’s more, he said, replacing punishments such as suspensions with counseling and other positive forms of discipline is working in some schools.
“These amazing teachers know what works and have seen how the non-binding guidance gives teachers valuable, proven tools to use in their classrooms, such as restorative justice and positive behavior strategies,” Mr. Stone said. “E4E teachers that are leading this work every single day in their classrooms across the country hope that the Department will preserve and build on this guidance that benefits educators and students alike.”
Gary Favors, a high school teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools attending the summit, took issue with the argument that racism is driving higher minority suspension rates.
“That’s bull,” said Mr. Favors, who’s black. “I’m in an urban setting. They’re not being discriminated against. Their behaviors are what I would call off the chain, and we need to address how to deal with those behaviors.”
The 23-year teaching veteran has a message for Ms. DeVos. “I’m going to say to the secretary, ‘We’ve got a huge issue. That Dear Colleague letter isn’t working because it’s tying people’s hands,’” he said.
He said he recently called security and sent a student to the principal’s office after he began roaming the classroom and chattering during a state-mandated standardized test. The office sent the student back.
“What I want to tell the secretary is that in public school, we have to take everybody who walks in the door. I understand that,” said Mr. Favors. “But if you’re going to tie my evaluation to these state tests, by God, I’m going to have some say-so on who comes in my room, and if they’re disruptive and causing havoc, they’re not going to stay in my classroom.”
For some school districts, however, rowdier classrooms may be a price worth paying in order to fend off a civil-rights probe and qualify for millions in federal grants.
Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, said she’s seen teachers injured and classrooms trashed in recent years as students figure out that schools are reluctant to bring down the hammer on bad behavior.
Even when school administrators do suspend or expel kids, she said, the official report may not reflect it.
“What I plan to tell her [DeVos] is we need to get some backing for classroom teachers, which is in a lot of schools non-existent among the administrators because the administrators are too busy falsifying the reports and numbers to generate better-looking data to continue to receive funding,” said Ms. Kidd, who taught for 25 years.
Not all teachers are willing to speak up for fear of losing jobs, said Ms. Landers, who has collected dozens of horror stories from the trenches, including statements from educators who wish to remain anonymous.
“They’re just terrified that word will get out and they’ll lose their jobs and their teaching licenses,” said Ms. Landers. “They are threatened. They experience retaliation. [They fear] they’ll be subject to unscheduled classroom supervision and the administration will mark out teaching issues and then terminate them.”
In February, she and her husband Josh Landers founded the Parent2Parent Network aimed at bringing parents together from across the nation to discuss and address “the school violence crisis.”
“We feel that the future of our country is at stake,” said Ms. Landers. “We’re either conditioning students that their behaviors don’t have consequences and we’re turning them out as undereducated, conditioned criminals, or we have a whole population of victimized and re-victimized students who believe the system is not going to protect them.”
Ultimately, said Mr. Favors, the schools are doing at-risk students a disservice by easing up on traditional discipline.
“I believe in corrective action, I believe in giving kids a chance, I believe in learning experiences for kids, but if we don’t start mimicking in schools what they would get in society, we’re creating a dichotomy,” he said. “And when they get out in the community, they’re going to get the book thrown at them.”