By Jen Herrick, People For the American Way
Stopping the scourge of gun violence in our nation’s schools, and in all corners of society, is of paramount importance to many Americans. Indeed, after 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the call to action reached the Trump administration, where Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos convened a school safety commission. Even before its first meeting, with Secretary DeVos on Capitol Hill testifying about her abysmal civil rights record and efforts to reexamine Obama-era guidance for reducing racial disparities in school discipline, we had good reason to be concerned about the direction the commission was headed. With the commission’s final report now in hand, our fears have been realized.
On December 18, the commission accused the Obama administration of “undercut[ting] the ability of local officials to address the impact of disciplinary matters on school safety” and that it “may have paradoxically contributed to making schools less safe,” followed by a recommendation to rescind the school discipline guidance.
This is the latest in a long line of examples of Secretary DeVos’ inability or unwillingness to take seriously her responsibility to enforce our nation’s civil rights laws. It has nothing to do with school safety. It’s more Trump-DeVos politics cloaked in a noble goal. The real message they are sending is that the federal government does not care that too many schools are kicking out too many students—students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQ students, and other students intersecting systemically-oppressed communities.
People For the American Way and PFAW’s African American Ministers In Action agree with former Obama administration official Catherine Lhamon that nothing in the guidance prevents schools from addressing students who may be a danger to others. We agree with Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund that racism is a national security issue, and we believe it’s also a school safety issue. We want Secretary DeVos to recognize that her responsibility to protect students includes safeguarding their rights.
We wrote to Secretary DeVos on December 8, 2017:
The federal guidance from 2014’s “Dear colleague” letter was formulated in response to our students’ struggles for equitable disciplinary practices and path to academic success. This federal guidance remains essential for holding our school systems accountable at the local level and for keeping this issue at the center of the national dialogue so that communities can work together to create solutions that bring an end to racial and discipline disparities and provide support so that all students can succeed in our nation.
We wrote to her again on March 22, 2018:
At such a tenuous time, when progress on school discipline has been too slow and too limited, rollback of this much needed guidance would hamper progress and undermine children’s pursuit of their education. And when the nation is focused on the importance of building safe and inclusive school environments, rescinding the guidance would send exactly the wrong message.
Every child deserves and should be included in a warm, welcoming, and responsive school that provides them the education they need to be ready for college, career, and life. Suspension and expulsion, especially when used in a discriminatory manner, undermine that goal and deny children the education they need.
Madam Secretary, safety and equity are bedrock educational values that go hand-in-hand.