Policy on School Discipline, Race Disparities in Crosshairs

  • DeVos-backed study would roll back Obama-era guidance
  • Commission created in wake of Florida mass shooting

The Education Department should roll back guidance focused on ending racial disparities in the way schools discipline students, a commission on school safety recommended in a package of proposals released Tuesday morning.

Ending the Obama-era guidance was one of numerous proposals made in a report from the Federal Commission on School Safety, composed of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and three other federal agency heads. The commission was formed in response to the shooting at a high school in Parkland,Fla., that left 17 people dead.

The recommendation to revoke the guidance followed months of hearings across the country where the commission heard from teachers, students, and mental health professionals.

Photo – EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
People leave after paying their respects at makeshift shrine to the victims of a elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 16, 2012.

The panel heard from teachers and students who were afraid at school because some individuals with histories of anti-social or violent behavior were going unpunished, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity on a call with reporters.

The report was silent on whether schools should arm teachers. Rather, it gave examples of school districts where highly trained school staff had access to firearms.

The report didn’t recommend the use of federal funding to provide staff with firearms, according to senior officials.

DeVos emphasized that the report didn’t provide a “one-size-fits-all solution for everyone everywhere.”

“Local problems need local solutions,” DeVos told reporters. “This report serves to identify options that policy makers should explore.”


In January 2014, the Obama administration released the discipline guidance after the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights found black students were three times more likely to be expelled or suspended than their white peers—a gap the office said was not because black students misbehaving more frequently.

A more recent study from the Office for Civil Rights found the disparities had grown worse for black students, with African-Americans making up a higher percentage of law enforcement referrals but a smaller percentage of the overall student population.

The 2014 guidance said schools could lose federal funding if department investigations found disparities in school discipline.

After the Parkland shooting, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked whether the guidance prevented the shooter from coming to the attention of law enforcement sooner. Broward County, where the high school was located, implemented a program in 2013 to address violent students without referring them to law enforcement.

While the federal guidance was released a year later in 2014, Rubio said the federal regulations “arguably made it easier for schools to not report students to law enforcement than deal with the potential consequences,” Rubio wrote in a March letter to DeVos and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.


While the guidance helped clarify legal obligations for schools, revoking it wouldn’t change requirements in federal law according to the Education Civil Rights Alliance, a group of civil rights organizations that supported the guidance.

“Schools remain obligated to eliminate unjustifiable discipline policies that have disparate effects on students of color,” they said in a letter addressed to local and state education officials.

Yet the loss of the guidance could leave school administrators in a difficult spot between balancing safety needs while ensuring all students are able to get an education, said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“The guidance encouraged many schools to find ways to help students succeed rather than react to behaviors that accelerate their failure, and therefore direct students on a path to prosperity rather than prison,” Bartoletti said in a statement. “The conclusion is offensive, it’s infuriating, it’s nonsensical, and it will assuredly lead to the result the administration wanted all along.”


While the bulk of the report focused on items states and localities could carry out, the commission had several recommendations for the federal government, including:

  • To deprive a shooter of fame and notoriety, the White House and other agencies shouldn’t provide a name or photos after the person is in custody of law enforcement.
  • The Education Department should clarify when student information can be shared under federal student privacy laws. For example, a student’s information can be shared in a health or safety emergency and with other school officials.
  • Congress and the Education Department should work together to update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
  • More grant funding should be provided for enhancing school security operations and improving physical infrastructure.
  • Congress should create a public-private partnership to help veterans and retired law enforcement officers become teachers.

The report also encouraged states to pass laws prohibiting people from buying guns if they have been reported as likely to cause danger to themselves or others. Thirteen states currently such laws, eight of which adopted them after the February shooting in Parkland, according to the report.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Jonathan Nicholson at jnicholson@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com