January 8, 2020
By Jonathan Butcher

In the first part of this series, Washington’s failed intervention into local school safety policy was laid bare. Federal directives incentivized districts to manufacture school discipline rates, which led some school systems to report unreliable information.

Furthermore, administrative decisions to limit suspension and expulsion have resulted in disruptive and sometimes dangerous students being left in the classroom.

Just ask Florida. A new report from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the “failings by school and law enforcement officials before and after” the Parkland shooting, explains that state law can even require that schools not sanction dangerous students.

“The same laws that protect disabled students make it difficult for schools to remove a student,” such as the “profoundly disturbed” student that committed the Parkland atrocity, says the Sun-Sentinel. “Violent students have injured thousands of teachers, bus drivers and staff in Broward County alone and undoubtedly thousands more across Florida,” wrote the paper.

Likewise, studies from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, to name a few, have found negative outcomes for the peers of offending students when disruptive students remain in class. These reports are not the end of school discipline policy debates—if only social science could be so conclusive—but the combination of randomized research methods and qualitative techniques producing consistent findings in these studies is highly persuasive.

But does teacher bias against students from different backgrounds explain disciplinary decisions? In fact, data demonstrate that students from different backgrounds exhibit different behaviors, which helps explain different school discipline rates. The Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald and the University of San Diego Law School’s Gail Herriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, have each supported this position using social science research and data from the U.S. Department of Education’s “Indicators of School Crime and Safety.” This report tracks gang and drug activity in schools, and more minority students report being involved in fights, for example, as well as in other risky behaviors at school in this survey.

One researcher that has documented findings in favor of limiting exclusionary discipline also says that factors pointing to bias among educators is not conclusive. A study from 2002 cited by both the federal Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) discussed in part 1 of this blog and Herriot’s research wrote, “In and of itself, however, disproportionality in school discipline is not sufficient to prove bias in the administration of discipline.”

The research from Philadelphia and Chicago cited above suggests that school assignment according to ZIP code results in high concentrations of minority students from the same dangerous neighborhood, often with troubled backgrounds, attending the same schools. This can result in some schools having high rates of discipline compared to schools in other areas. The Chicago researchers write that the “concentration of many low-achieving students from high-poverty neighborhoods…seems to increase the likelihood that a school will have high suspension rates.”

One of the Philadelphia study’s authors commented on his research saying:

Particularly in urban schooling contexts, we know that residential location, particularly for minority students, means that these students are coming from neighborhoods with higher crime rates, higher poverty, quite a bit more life trauma and what we are doing is sorting these students into the same schools and really concentrating disadvantage and therefore likely concentrating behavioral issues within the same school, and, as a result we may be seeing higher rates of school discipline.

School assignment is a good place to start, then, to form effective policy. Florida lawmakers have enacted a proposal that allows bullied students to choose private schools, while Arizona lawmakers considered a similar proposal earlier this year.

Parents, teachers, and school leaders are the adults who are closest to children each day, and policymakers should allow them to make decisions in students’ best interests. The federal task force that called for rescinding the DCL described in part 1 of this series wrote that teachers “have an understanding of the students entrusted to their care and can see behavioral patterns on an ongoing basis.” In some cases, suspension or expulsion may not be appropriate—while these measures may be just what a student needs in other instances.

Research speaks to this point, as well. A study by researchers at Princeton using data from non-intact families found that “facilitating school involvement from minority parents may be the most efficacious way to reduce racial disparities in suspension.” This research could not use randomized controls that help to limit outside factors influencing the results, but this recommendation, paired with the school-assignment analyses from other studies, underscores the value of policies that allow parents to decide where and how children learn.

The lesson for policymakers as we begin a new decade is that federal orders and other mandates to keep exclusionary discipline at certain levels should not hover in the background to distract educators. Parents and educators have a critical job to keep children safe, no matter a child’s background or the color of their skin.

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute. A portion of this analysis can be found in Jonathan’s testimony before the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on November 19, 2019.

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