Disciplining the Undisciplined

The tough letter that senior House Republicans sent last week to Arne Duncan and Eric Holder should have been even tougher. For the “guidance” that their agencies issued to U.S. schools in the guise of improving school discipline can only make it harder for educators to create safe, serious, and effective learning environments.

Education Committee chairman John Kline and several colleagues politely wrote that this guidance could “have a chilling effect on teachers and school leaders working to address discipline issues with students; potentially leading to unruly and unsafe classrooms that could adversely affect student learning.”

That’s putting it mildly. University of Colorado political scientist Josh Dunn was blunter “The consequences for schools and particularly for minority students,” he wrote, “will be nothing short of disastrous if actually implemented.”

In the increasingly Orwellian language of our federal government, the “supportive school discipline initiative,” a joint undertaking of the Education and Justice Departments, began in mid-2011. Its declared purpose was “to support the use of school discipline practices that foster safe, supportive, and productive learning environments while keeping students in school.”

Sounds great, yes? And there’s no denying that some of the advice the feds proffered for “improving school climate” and establishing effective discipline codes is worth following. The “Guiding Principles” document that emerged from the Education Department alone contains some useful if often self-evident suggestions, such as “train all school staff to apply school discipline policies and practices in a fair and equitable manner.”

And if sensible advice were all that the two-agency “initiative” produced, there’d be no need for polite-but-stern letters from congressmen. But such advice is just the velvet glove around the iron hand of federal civil-rights enforcement.

That hand takes the form of a twenty-three-page “Dear Colleague” letter issued on the same day by both agencies. Its chilling theme is the many ways that an educator, school, or school system could find itself in deep doo-doo with government enforcers if their disciplinary practices have a “disparate impact” on various groups of kids.

Cue Professor Dunn:

In translation, the guidelines mean that if students in one racial group are punished more than their percentage of the student population a school can expect the feds to come knocking at their door. In that investigation, federal bureaucrats will ask if a discipline policy had an “adverse” (disproportionate) impact on a particular race, if the policy is necessary to meet important educational goals, and if other effective policies could be substituted without the “adverse” effect. The guidelines are unsurprisingly short on what could count as an important educational goal and what policies might be suitable alternatives. If evenhandedly designed and implemented policies could fall afoul of their bureaucratic eye, then any policy could.

If you’re trying to run a school, your foremost interest must lie in creating suitable learning environments for kids who do want to learn and who behave accordingly. That means disciplining youngsters who don’t and, when warranted, removing them from the learning environments of those who do. Or else nobody will learn. The school will fail. The country will suffer—and so will those who were ready, willing, and able to benefit from an orderly school.

So what if some kids—maybe due to circumstances associated with being disadvantaged at home or in other ways—misbehave more than others? The commonsense answer: You discipline them more than others.

That’s exactly what the feds don’t want you to do. And their long “Dear Colleague” letter is full of threats of what they will do to you if you do. Pages twenty-one and twenty-two lay out a dozen “remedies” they might impose on you, your school, or your district.

It doesn’t matter whether you engaged in discriminatory behavior, even though the proper job of civil-rights enforcers is to whack you when you do. No, what these folks are watching for is a “disparate impact” on groups, mainly racial groups, regardless of discriminatory behavior. Behavior is simply deemed to be discriminatory—hence a violation of (among other things) Title IV or Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, plus umpteen other laws—if it affects groups differently. No matter why.

Hence a school that wants to avoid getting into trouble must ensure that, regardless of actual discipline challenges that its actual students may actually pose, it treats every group exactly alike.

Back to Josh Dunn:

Most perversely, [this guidance] will encourage schools to tolerate disruptive and dangerous behavior lest they have too many students of one race being punished. The effect will be to punish students who behave and want to learn since their education will be sabotaged by troublemakers. And the disruptive will certainly learn, and learn quickly, that their schools are now tolerating even more disruptive behavior. Sadly these incentives will be strongest in largely minority, urban school districts, like Baltimore’s, where disruptive student behavior is a more significant problem. Thus, minority students are likely to bear the brunt of these guideline’s harmful effects…. But these guidelines will also encourage schools to unjustly punish students in races that have lower rates of punishment than their percentage of the student body. If we accept the guideline’s assumption that disruptive behavior should be evenly distributed across racial groups, Asian students are woefully underpunished. Under these guidelines a school would be well-advised to increase their punishments of Asian students whether or not they committed any infractions. Punishing some innocent students could turn out to be very good policy.

Dunn is correct. So are chairman Kline and his colleagues. Messrs. Holder and Duncan should back off. They should let educators focus on running safe schools in which eager learners are able to concentrate. I know it’ll never happen but it would sure be nice if they would, for once, simply retract their threats and acknowledge that they were wrong to make them in the first place. The president they work for spends a lot of time apologizing to various people and groups and countries for sundry disturbances. His Cabinet members would be well advised to do likewise.

– Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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