Trump may roll back Obama school discipline rules, but 2 NC districts will keep them

In this Feb. 14, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump talks to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington.
In this Feb. 14, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump talks to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. AP

Two Triangle school systems don’t plan to back away from their efforts to reduce student suspensions, even as the Trump Administration moves to undo federal policies designed to reduce racial discrimination in school discipline.

A federal school safety panel led by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recommended Tuesday rolling back the 2014 guidance issued by the Obama Administration that warned school districts they could be investigated if minority students are suspended at disproportionately high rates.

Both the Wake County school system and Durham Public Schools reached agreements this year with federal civil rights investigators to make changes to their discipline policies, including looking for more in-school alternatives to removing students from school.

Both school districts said this week that they’ll continue their discipline reforms, regardless of whether the Obama guidance is rescinded.

“It doesn’t change our work,” said Wake school board vice chairman Keith Sutton. “It doesn’t change our focus. We’re still committed to doing our best to keep kids in school.

“We’re doing that by not only changing policies but changing the ways we think about suspensions, think about discipline.”

Chip Sudderth, a spokesman for Durham Public Schools, said the district plans to continue with the actions agreed to in the settlement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

“We believe they are the right thing to do for all of our students’ safety and for equitable access to a high-quality education,” Sudderth said.

Since 2012, suspensions have declined nationally, according to a 2018 analysis by National Public Radio. In North Carolina, suspensions have dropped 16 percent since the 2012-13 school year. The Wake County school system has seen a 50-percent reduction in suspensions since 2007.

But critics think school districts have gone too far in their efforts to reduce suspensions.

“The moves the Wake board are making are not in the interest of student or school safety, but in the interest of their own self-preservation,” said A.P. Dillon, a conservative blogger and parent of two Wake students, in an email. “Changing a set of statistics will not change the reality that Wake has serious discipline problems.

“No one is asking the very basics question: Are these suspensions warranted?”

Some say suspending students will cause them to fall further behind academically. But others say that leaving disruptive students in school hurts the ability of their classmates to learn.

The issue of school discipline came under greater federal scrutiny in 2014 when the U.S. Department of Education sent school districts guidance about how racial disparities in suspensions may be the result of racial discrimination. For instance, black students in North Carolina are four times more likely than white students to be suspended.

The guidance warned school districts they could lose federal funding if discrimination was found. Schools were encouraged to find alternatives to suspensions.

Instead of using suspensions for some offenses, both Wake and Durham have increased the use of “restorative practices” for students with behavior issues. Those students are taught to identify behaviors that are not helpful or constructive, and then replace them with healthier, more productive behaviors.

Calls to rescind the Obama guidelines increased after the February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., killed 17 people. Critics have said that the alleged shooter once had been assigned to a school district program that provides alternatives to being arrested for some minor crimes.

The report from the Federal Commission on School Safety contends that the 2014 guidance from the Obama administration “has likely had a strong, negative impact on school discipline and safety.” The report says the guidance has had a “chilling effect on school discipline” and “leads to school environments where discipline decisions may be based on race rather than student safety.”

The report cites various surveys where teachers raised concerns about reducing the use of suspensions. In North Carolina, the latest statewide survey of teachers found fewer thought their schools were safe or that students behaved properly at school.

“When the Obama Administration approved their new discipline guidance, they did so with the best of intentions,” said Terry Stoops, a former teacher who is now vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh. “But there seems to be the problem of unintended consequences, and sometimes those unintended consequences made it difficult for teachers to maintain an orderly classroom.”

Sutton, the Wake school board member, said teachers and administrators need to be more thoughtful now of they handle discipline and look for alternatives to suspensions. The school board is expected to discuss in January a proposal to remove the use of suspensions as a punishment for some lower-level offenses.

“I wouldn’t disagree that the way we approach discipline may be more difficult because it requires us to be more thoughtful about how we do it and more intentional in how we do it to be less disparate in our impact,” Sutton said.

Wake school board chairman Jim Martin said reducing suspensions doesn’t mean that school discipline is being reduced. He said what Wake is trying to do is to change students’ behavior so they’ll stay in school and learn.

“Suspensions are an ineffective form of discipline,” said Martin, a NC State chemistry professor. “As an educator, I want to see students succeed. I want to see students educated.

“If I see practices that are ineffective, I need to look at it and see what’s wrong and change it. We’re not talking about no discipline or less discipline. We’re talking about effective discipline.”

The impact of rolling back the Obama discipline guidelines is uncertain. But Stoops, of the Locke Foundation, said he anticipates minimal impact from rescinding the guidelines.

“I don’t see teachers and administrators suspending students willy-nilly,” Stoops said. “Rather, they’re going to have another tool in their tool kit to maintain an orderly learning environment.”

But Peggy Nicholson, co-director of the Youth Justice Project at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, fears school districts around the country will go back to their old practices. She’s worried that the U.S. Department of Education will not be as dedicated to looking into complaints about discrimination.

“In North Carolina and nationwide, any progress we made is really in jeopardy,” Nicholson said. “I’m glad to hear that Wake County leadership is committed to addressing racial disproportionality.”

Martin, the Wake school board member, said districts that have changed how they handle discipline need to stay the course.

“I don’t think rescinding the guidance is wise,” Martin said. “There will be places that do go back. But I do think where effective alternatives have been put into place, I don’t see it going back.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer