WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Wednesday entered a heated national debate on racial disparities in school discipline, meeting with educators as a government watchdog said in a report that African-American students continue to be punished more often than their peers.
The study by the Government Accountability Office found that black children account for about 16 percent of students but 39 percent of students suspended from school. A 2016 federal study showed that black students are more than three times more likely to be suspended from school and nearly twice as likely to be expelled than their white peers.
A 2014 document issued by the Obama administration told schools to determine if penalties like suspension and expulsion were disproportionately affecting black students. If they didn't correct any disparities, they could face federal investigations and possible loss of federal funding.
The document also urged educators to move away from harsh penalties in favor of positive behavior interventions such as counseling.
DeVos met behind closed doors Wednesday morning with educators who believe that rolling back the Obama rule will further entrench discrimination. Later in the day she heard from opponents who say that softening discipline practices makes schools less safe and prevents effective learning.
While there's widespread agreement that disparities in discipline based on race and disability are a serious problem, there's intense debate over what causes them and how to fix them.
Tynisha Jointer, behavioral health specialist for elementary schools in Chicago, said the Obama-era guidance was instrumental in fighting discrimination. She recalled a visit to a public school to help counsel an unruly first-grader. Jointer observed the student, a black boy, acting out during a PE class. But she also noticed that during the first 10 minutes of class, the teacher redirected that student six times, while his white peers who also were misbehaving did not receive the same attention.
"Black students, especially black boys, are looked at as deviant and defiant while white students are seen as exploring and testing boundaries," Jointer said in an interview.
She said she told DeVos that "hands down, positive interventions work best."
Olinka Crusoe, who teaches English as a second language in New York City, cited the example of a first-grader at her school who would act out during writing time. She and other teachers spent several months trying various approaches until they figured out that giving him a sheet of paper with bigger lines and a bigger pencil solved the problem.
"We tried intervention after intervention after intervention until the student was able to do the work, to just sit and learn," Crusoe said before her meeting with DeVos.
But Nicole Stewart said she resigned as vice principal at Lincoln High School in San Diego because she believes the Obama policy made her school and others dangerous for students and teachers. Stewart said one student brought a knife to school, but was not expelled because his action was attributed to his disability. Two weeks later, he attacked a student with a knife in front of their peers, she said.
"Imagine that culture, imagine being a student on that campus, imagine being a teacher and wondering if you are safe, whether they have a gun," Stewart told reporters in a phone call.
Max Eden, an education expert at the Manhattan Institute, said when school officials fear repercussions from Washington they refrain from disciplining unruly students and that causes disruption in classrooms.
"The message is that when the federal government says 'you better get these numbers down,' they are going to go down and the easiest way to do that is to not punish bad behavior or hide it when you do," Eden said after the meeting.
Eden said DeVos did not ask questions or make comments and merely listened.
DeVos' moves on school discipline follow other decisions on students' civil rights last year. She rescinded guidance telling schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. She also allowed universities to ask for more evidence from women complaining of sexual assault on campus. DeVos said bathroom rules should be decided at the local level and that the Obama practice of investigating sexual assault was unfair to the accused.
Education Department officials would not say when any decision could be made on any changes in the 2014 school discipline guidelines.