Administration Rescinds Obama School Discipline Letter

Here’s some good news. The Department of Education and the Department of Justice have jointly rescinded an Obama-era “Dear Colleague” letter that threatened federal action against schools whose discipline policies result in a “disparate impact” on racial minorities. We have repeatedly denounced this assault by the Obama administration on the ability of schools to maintain classroom discipline.

Indeed, of all the wars the left is waging on standards, its attack, in the name of racial justice, on race-neutral school disciplinary rules is the most perverse. Education remains the pathway to success for minority group members. The opportunity to use that pathway is undermined when unruly students disrupt the classroom. Thus, black students and their parents have a strong interest in the maintenance of classroom discipline.

Katherine Kersten has demonstrated how perverse the Obama administration’s policy can be in operation. In the St. Paul school district, the lax disciplinary policies adopted to comply with the dear colleague letter produced misbehavior so rampant and serious that teachers complained some schools resembled “a war zone”:

One veteran elementary school teacher, a Black, said he witnessed “far worse” behaviors [after the issuance of the dear colleague letter]. “On a daily basis, I saw students cussing at their teachers, running out of class, yelling and screaming in the halls, and fighting,” he recounted. School officials often failed to follow up when he referred kids for misbehavior. “I have since learned that this tactic is widely used throughout the district to keep the numbers of referrals and suspensions low,” he explained.

The teacher now works at a charter school.

The Obama administration’s dear colleague letter is also flawed in theory. It’s predicated on the view that if a facially-neutral policy negatively affects blacks and Hispanics at a higher rate than whites and Asians, the disparity must be due to discrimination.

But no such presumption is warranted. The sad reality is that black students as a group are more likely than white students to be undisciplined. Heather Mac Donald provides the evidence:

[C]onsider Duval County, Florida, which has Florida’s highest juvenile homicide rate. Seventy-three children, some as young as 11, have been arrested for murder and manslaughter over the last decade, according to the Florida Times-Union. Black juveniles made up 87.6 percent of those arrests and whites 8 percent.

The black population in Duval County—which includes Jacksonville—was 28.9 percent in 2010 and the white population 56.6 percent, making black youngsters 21.6 times more likely to be arrested for homicide than white youngsters. Nationally, black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit homicide at ten times the rate of white and Hispanic male teens combined; if Hispanics were removed from the equation, the black-white disparity would be much greater.

(Emphasis added)

Given this disparity in behavioral patterns, the presumption should be that disparities in school discipline results are not the result of discrimination. A finding of discrimination should occur only if it can be shown that teachers are disciplining white students less harshly than black students who commit the same offenses with the same frequency.

It’s unfortunate that it took Secretary of Education DeVos so long to agree to rescind the dear colleague letter — a move the Sessions Justice Department wanted all along. But the important thing is that she has agreed, and that the letter is no longer in effect.

There’s still work to be done, however. The administration must clarify through a new rule that the disparate-impact approach will not be used in the enforcement of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Otherwise, as Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute warns, a future Democrat-appointed Secretary of Education will likely reinstate the Obama-era policy.

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