Two years ago, it seemed like scrapping Obama-era guidance around school suspensions might be at the top of Betsy DeVos’s to-do list as education secretary.
The rules encouraged schools to limit suspensions and expulsions, and have been supported by progressives and civil rights groups. But they have been heavily criticized by conservatives, who say they’ve made schools less safe. Still, the guidelines have stayed in place, even as conversations about school safety have taken on new intensity.
The Washington Post reported Monday that the final report of the school safety commission convened after February’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will recommend that the guidance be eliminated. That would be a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools, a connection that remains questionable and hotly debated. The report is expected this month.
“The Federal Commission on School Safety has studied the topic of school discipline extensively and will make a recommendation on the Obama-era school discipline guidance in its final report,” Department of Education spokesperson Liz Hill said.
The debate about these guidelines is long-running and fierce. Here’s a guide to what’s at stake and what to look out for as decisions are made.
Catch me up: What is this guidance?
This all centers around a letter issued in January 2014 by the education and justice departments. It said that school leaders should seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom, especially when their behavior isn’t violent.
The guidelines also pushed districts to take a close look at how students of different racial groups are punished. The letter said that disparities could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law.
Leaders from both departments made clear that this was an issue they would take seriously. “We will enforce Federal laws to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination in school discipline,” they wrote.
Many districts were already changing their approaches. Research on the connection between suspensions and dropout rates, among other issues, had been pushing districts like Denver, Los Angeles, and New York City to eliminate “zero tolerance” policies and curb suspensions.
It’s unclear exactly how many more districts adjusted their policies because of the directives — one survey of superintendents in 47 states found that 16 percent of districts did — but Obama officials certainly encouraged the shift.
Why has it become such a big deal?
The short answer is that the guidance has become significant to both the political left and right, with practical and symbolic import. On the left, it represents the fight against racism and the potential of the Trump administration to set that back. On the right, the guidance represents a bungled top-down government intervention that allows misbehavior to go unpunished.
For instance, Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute, has described the guidance as “coercive.” According to Eden’s analysis, at least 350 districts were investigated by the Office of Civil Rights from 2009 to 2017 “for the purpose of intimidating them into adopting discipline policies favored by the Obama administration.” In his view, the guidance trampled on local authority, pushing districts to poorly implement changes that led to disorder in schools.
National school boards and superintendents groups have also been critical of the guidance, saying it cut into local autonomy. Teachers in certain districts have reported that they have been hamstrung without good alternatives to suspension. Some of those critics got a hearing before department officials late last year.
DeVos has also heard from supporters of the guidance. To them, the guidance simply codified longstanding laws meant to protect against discrimination. Some have conceded that changes were poorly implemented in some cases. But much of the education world — including teachers unions and certain education reform groups — has urged DeVos to maintain the Obama-era rules.
These tensions have likely been heightened by the president. Rescinding the guidance, to some progressives, would be an extension of the Trump administration’s racist policymaking. Indeed, the language used by some opponents has had racist undertones, like an essay in a Manhattan Institute publication titled “No Thug Left Behind.” Breitbart, the far-right site, has described the guidance as an “Obama-era school leniency policy of reducing reports of violent behavior committed by minority students.”
How did this all get connected to the school safety commission?
The February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, prompted the Trump administration to convene a school safety commission and reinvigorated conservative opposition to the discipline guidance.
Commenters blamed Broward County’s alternative discipline programs, meant to reduce suspensions, for allowing the shooter to escape scrutiny for earlier offenses. And they blamed the Obama guidance for leading to the creation of Broward’s program, a claim that percolated through conservative media.
That connection doesn’t make sense. Broward’s program launched in 2013 — before the Obama administration issued its 2014 guidance. But politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio repeated the claim that the guidance contributed to the massacre, which killed 17.
Trump named DeVos chair of the school safety commission, and “Repeal of the Obama Administration’s ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies” was one of its areas of focus, suggesting the decision was inevitable.
The Post reports that the commission, as expected, will not recommend new gun restrictions.
It’s also worth noting that legitimate questions have been raised more recently about Broward County’s initiatives to reduce suspensions, which were held up as a model by the Obama administration. The Broward superintendent originally claimed that shooter Nikolas Cruz was not part of district’s Promise program, which was meant to avoid referring students to police after non-violent offenses. A local NPR station would later report that he was. Other local reporting suggested that teachers felt ill-equipped to implement the disciplinary changes, and some reported that student behavior got worse as a result.
What will changes mean for schools and students?
The guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking and embolden opposition to discipline changes already underway.
Still, a number of districts have already said they are committed to seeing through the changes they’ve made.
If the guidance is rescinded, “I think in our district, it wouldn’t change anything,” Christopher Maher, superintendent of Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island, said recently. Still, he said, “I think it helps when you have voices like that at a federal level making a statement.”
Going back to the core issue here — do suspensions really harm students?
There’s lots of evidence that students who get suspended have lower test scores and higher dropout rates than students who don’t get suspended. It’s also well documented that black students, students with disabilities, and boys are much more likely than others to be suspended or expelled.
To critics of exclusionary discipline, this is strong evidence that those disciplinary tactics are deeply problematic. But it’s also true that the connection doesn’t prove that suspensions harm students — only that students headed for worse outcomes are also the students who get suspended, which is not surprising.
Recent research gets closer to pinning down cause and effect, though. In Louisiana, a study found that when a black student and a white student got into a fight, the black student was suspended for longer, though the difference was very small. And a handful of recent studies have shown that suspensions do actually cause lower test scores, though again, the effect was fairly small.
And has cutting back on suspensions made things worse, a key claim of discipline reform critics? There’s limited evidence, one way or another. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result.
Meanwhile, there’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.