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Betsy DeVos to Review Obama-Era Policy on Racial Bias In Student Discipline

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during the BET’s ‘Love and Happiness: A Musical Experience” in a tent on the South Lawn of the White House October 21, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is reviewing an Obama-era policy that seeks to counter racial bias in school discipline and calls for softer penalties for students.

African-American students are suspended and expelled from schools at a rate three times higher than their white peers, according to federal data.

On Wednesday, DeVos met with educators who believe that rolling back the Obama rule will further entrench discrimination. Later in the day she planned to meet with opponents who say that softening discipline practices makes schools less safe and prevents effective learning.

While there’s widespread agreement that disparities in school discipline based on race and disability are a serious problem, there is intense debate over what causes them and how to fix them. The Obama guidance issued in 2014 instructed schools to adopt milder discipline practices and took them to task for racial disparities. Schools, where minority students were facing disproportionate punishment could face federal investigations and a possible loss of funding. DeVos is considering rescinding the guidance and wants to hear from both sides.

Cami Anderson, former superintendent in Newark and founder of the Discipline Revolution Project, says that black students, students with disabilities and other minorities often face harsher treatment from teachers because of their biases. She supports the Obama policy.

“They can do the exact same thing and our response as human beings, as educators is often different,” Anderson said at a recent panel held by the Thomas Fordham Institute. “There are biases at play in our society and they are deeply entrenched and they show up in all of us.”

But Mike Petrilli, president of institute, argues that the guidance should be rescinded because it has made teachers reluctant to discipline students, which has led to disruptions in class, fights and other violent incidents. Petrilli agrees that racial and other biases do contribute to the disparities, but children growing up in poverty and facing trauma are also more likely to misbehave.

“Making progress on this difficult issue is predicated on acknowledging an uncomfortable truth, one that can easily be demagogued,” Petrilli wrote in a recent blog post. “On average, due to a host of factors beyond their own control, including poverty, fatherlessness, and trauma, poor children of color are more likely to misbehave at school than are their peers.”

Olinka Crusoe, an English as a second language teacher in New York City, said she would tell DeVos that social and emotional support for students, such as equipping schools with counselors and psychologists works better than expulsions and other forms of harsh punishment.

Crusoe 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. The student is now a confident fourth-grader.

But Nicole Stewart said she resigned as vice principal at Lincoln High School in San Diego because she believes the Obama policy made her and other schools dangerous for students and teachers. Steward said that after her time there, 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, Stewart said.

“If there are no consequences for actions that are punishable in the real world, then what good are we doing these students,” Steward said.

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. Critics said the moves for LGBT students and victims of sexual assault. DeVos counters that bathroom rules should be decided at the local level and that the Obama practice of investigating sexual assault was unfair to the accused.

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