U.S. Education Department Reviewing Complaints About Inequities in K-12 Discipline, Supportive Services

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has received a record 7,000 complaints and is conducting 54 compliance reviews — the vast majority of which concern elementary and secondary schools. Experts, however, say the implications for such cases reach much farther, impacting minority students’ aspirations and access to college.

At the top of the list of complaints are allegations that African-American children, boys in particular, are disciplined far more harshly than their White peers. English language learners, disabled students and children with other special needs aren’t getting the supportive services that they need, according to complaints. School districts that are found to be in noncompliance with civil rights laws risk losing their federal funding.

Of the seven civil rights compliance reviews taking place on college and university campuses, four involve equal access to intercollegiate athletic opportunities for female students.

Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton says OCR decided where to conduct the compliance reviews based on national trends that were not being addressed. The disparate discipline issue has for a while been on the radar of researchers and civil rights leaders who, calling for Congressional involvement, argue that schools’ zero-tolerance discipline policies contribute to the schools-to-prison pipeline.

Disparate school suspension rates already have had a long-term, harmful academic and psychological effect on Black male students, which impacts the rate at which they earn high school diplomas and move on to postsecondary education, says Dr. Michael Holzman, a senior research consultant at the Schott Foundation for Public Education. When two kids get into a fight, the White student will be sent to the principal’s office and the Black student, Holzman says, is suspended or, worse yet, in the South reported to the police.

Holzman says suspension is a primary contributor to the high school dropout problem and low graduation rate — 47 percent according to a recent Schott report — among Black males. In many cases, he says, students are not provided out-of-school services and get the message that they don’t belong in school, which can adversely impact both the desire and the ability of minority students to attend college or seek some other postsecondary credential.

On a recent site visit to a Tennessee school district that the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is investigating, attorney Damon Hewitt, who heads LDF’s education practice, found that suspended students were essentially warehoused in a so-called alternative school where “they sit around looking at each other instead of learning.” According to Hewitt, most of the students were African-American and several had been sent to the alternative school multiple times.

“The reasons [for suspension] included vague categories such as disrespect and disobedience, cursing out a teacher and dress-code violations,” Hewitt says. “Research shows that when students are excluded from school in large numbers or on a repeated basis, they have a really difficult time getting back on track. They become disengaged, are made to feel unwelcome and are treated in the same way.”

Hewitt says civil rights advocates hope reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will provide an opportunity to inject “some common sense” into school discipline policy.

“We’ve called upon Congress to track these students so we have some real and robust data that’s disaggregated by race and gender so that we can see what’s happening to students more clearly than periodic reports. And we think that data being transparent and open will make a real difference,” Hewitt says.

In a recent study on middle school suspensions by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, researchers also called for increased data collection, in part, to identify school districts with high suspension rates and target them for training on alternative discipline.

The data LDF calls for would also be disaggregated by special education, English learner and socioeconomic status. It would include in-school and out-of-school suspensions; instances of multiple suspensions; expulsions and school-based arrests; and referrals to law enforcement agencies and alternative schools. In addition, data would be collected about the number of students who return to or drop out of school after being expelled, suspended, involuntarily transferred, placed in an alternative school, or otherwise excluded from a mainstream educational environment.

“If we don’t get this under control, we’ll never close the achievement gap or reach the president’s 2020 goal,” Hewitt warned. “This is part of the key to academic achievement.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has already taken steps to ensure equity in sports under Title IX. Earlier this year, the Obama administration repealed a policy in the Title IX amendment that allowed colleges, universities and secondary schools that receive federal funding to use a survey to gauge women’s interest in sports and attribute low response rates to lack of interest.

“Women are much more interested in college sports than they used to be, but in these hard financial times, schools aren’t always cutting back equitably,” says Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress and the U.S. Education Department’s first assistant secretary for civil rights during the Carter administration. “That’s assuming they reached a fair investment between men and women to begin and a lot of them didn’t even do that.”