For our children’s sake, keep the federal guidance on school discipline

For our children’s sake, keep the federal guidance on school discipline
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Our children deserve the right to go to school in safety. They cannot learn in a fearful environment. As the horrific pattern of shootings repeats in schools across the country, we are rightly considering how to make schools safe places for all children and staff.

There are really two parts to school safety. First, we need to prevent angry individuals with guns from getting into schools. We do not write to address this piece. Second, we need to take steps to ensure that our children do not grow up thinking that violence is the only option. This is our focus.

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The Trump administration and some members of Congress are rallying around a proposed Federal Commission on School Safety. The commission is to be chaired by Secretary DeVos and, unfortunately, was created with a pre-established agenda and recommendations. One recommendation is the repeal of 2014 guidance for schools from the Department of Education, entitled “Rethinking Discipline.” This step would be wrong, and we implore the commission to rethink its agenda.

 

Some allege that the guidance must be repealed, but the justification for repeal that is given is not based in fact: the guidance does not prevent school administrators from using disciplinary measures to maintain school safety. In fact, the guidance explicitly states, “[T]he Department recognizes that schools may use disciplinary measures as part of a program to promote safe and orderly educational environments.”

Instead, the “Rethinking Discipline” guidance was created to promote equity in how our students experience disciplinary actions, and to provide tools and resources to school administrators to inform decision-making and prevent disparity based on race and disability. Specifically, this guidance has helped school districts develop programs to incorporate a range of strategies that reduce misbehavior and maintain a safe learning environment, including training school teams in conflict resolution, restorative practices, counseling and mental health services, and implementing school-wide systems of positive interventions that we know are effective.

These tools are based on a research-proven approach that can provide both a safe school environment and independent, productive young adults. Thousands of schools are using effective programs with positive techniques that promote emotional well-being and result in reduced problem behaviors, increased prosocial behavior, improved emotional regulation and improved academic achievement.

Without these tools, our most vulnerable children will return to being at a greater risk for suffering from isolation, rejection, stigmatization and criminalization. Exclusionary approaches, such as suspension and expulsion, result too often in alienated young people without the skills to thrive. And it’s undeniable the perpetrators who have preyed on our children were driven to acts of violence (at least in part) by the anger they feel over being unable to integrate into society. Students who display warning signs or dangerous behaviors need appropriate services and supports, not exclusion and rejection.

There is no evidence that eliminating the protection of the civil rights of students with disabilities or of students of color will reduce school shootings. Instead of focusing on the elimination of the actions of the Obama administration, this administration should focus on strengthening it. Even with the guidance for schools, students with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to be suspended and expelled than their peers — 18 percent to 10 percent, respectively. A Black male with a disability attending secondary school is suspended at nearly twice the rate (33.8 percent) of a white male peer with disability (16.2 percent). We can, and must, do better.

Rescinding the current guidance will harm our most vulnerable children. We ask that the commission not repeal the “Rethinking Discipline” guidance, and instead work to promote strong district and school-wide positive behavior support programs that include training for staff in locally-selected and tailored programs that successfully resolve behavioral challenges and significantly reduce student suspensions and office discipline referrals.

Alexis Casillas, a lawyer in California, is board chair for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), an independent, nonprofit organization that works to protect the civil rights and secure excellence in education on behalf of the 6.5 million children with disabilities in America.