Is Betsy DeVos on the Verge of Removing Civil Rights Protections for Students of Color?

(A different version of this piece appeared earlier this month at Education Post.)

Let’s just call her Betsy DeVoid.

Our secretary of education earns a name-change because of her predilection for voiding laws that protect our most disenfranchised students. First it was rescissions to the civil rights regulations that protect students with disabilities. Now it’s the 2014 Obama administration’s school discipline guidance, also based on civil rights law, that requires districts to address the wide disproportionality in suspensions and expulsions for students of color and students with disabilities compared with White students and those without disabilities.

Some education observers applaud DeVos’ move, calling the Obama guidance an example of federal overreach as well as counter-productive. The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Hans Bader told Breitbart News that the guidance has led to an increase in school violence and that “students are escaping discipline for things like threatening teachers and setting classmates’ hair on fire.”

They’re wrong. The Obama administration’s guidance addresses our school system’s long history of punishing Black and Brown students—especially those with disabilities—at far higher rates than White students who commit the same infractions.

Black students comprise 15 percent of U.S. public school students, yet they are suspended at a rate of 35 percent. In fact, 50 percent of students referred to law enforcement are African-American or Hispanic. The Office of Civil Rights found that African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated White students. In short they concluded, “racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”

DeVos’ rescission of the Obama guidance expresses her denial of reality or, more likely, indulgence of her political credo that diminution of federal oversight trumps equity.

And what of the Obama guidance for disciplining children with disabilities, also headed for DeVos’ overworked paper shredder? The disparities are stark. According to a report from the Center for American Progress and Educators for Excellence, “kids ages 3 to 5 with behavioral problems were 43 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their typically-developing peers.” And the odds of being suspended or expelled were 33 times higher for children with ADHD.

Let’s Make It Real

Let’s get beyond dehumanizing percentages and make it real. Let’s say you’re a teacher who has a vision-impaired student in your classroom. If this student trips over an obstacle in his path, do you reprimand him for being clumsy? Do you send him to the principal’s office if he falls again? Not likely. You accommodate his disability by ensuring that pathways remain clear and he has access to his cane, guide dog or aide.

That’s an easy one so let’s kick it up a notch. How about Isaiah? A preschooler, Isaiah would race around the room and push classmates if they came too close to him during the sounding of fire alarms. As a result, teachers labeled him as “defiant and aggressive, which led a painful cycle of overstimulation, disruptive behavior, removal from class, fear and loneliness.” What Isaiah’s school failed to confront was that he had global developmental delays and is easily overstimulated, which causes his behavior.

Now let’s get personal. My son Jonah, who has a genetic mutation called Fragile X Syndrome, once pushed me to the ground as I dragged him from an elevator while waiting for a train in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Seeing this, a sweet old lady leaned over to whisper in my ear, “That child has the devil in him.”

Was Jonah a hellion destined for damnation or was he manifesting symptoms of sensory integration disorder and anxiety? The latter, of course. But if he exhibited similar behavior at school without the oversight of the Obama administration’s guidance, he could have been suspended or expelled, which can be a ticket to the school-to-prison pipeline.

What Should Happen When Students With Disabilities Display Inappropriate Behavior?

So the question remains, what should happen when students with disabilities display inappropriate behavior? The short answer: lots of explaining about rules and consequences, lots of practice of calming techniques, required apologies and compassion. Suspension? Expulsion? No. That would be a violation of their civil rights (as well as the school’s requirement to perform a Manifest Determination Review because children can’t be suspended for acts stemming from their disabilities).

Former Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, currently spearheading a restorative justice initiative, explains.

“Students have to be accountable for their behavior,” Anderson writes. “They just need to be accountable in a way that that they’re going to learn from it. Putting them out is almost never the way for that to happen.”

Yet “putting them out” is the direction our federal education overseer is headed, abandoning the Obama administration’s attempt to reform long-standing inequities that affect our neediest children to satisfy those who chafe at federal accountability. Perhaps if DeVos spent a day with a blind child, a traumatized preschooler or an easily overwhelmed teenager with multiple disabilities, she’d resist false demonization. Meanwhile, parents, teachers and school leaders are at the mercy of her ignorance.

What do you think?

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