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What harsher federal guidelines on school discipline and suspensions mean for Ohio students

By Patrick O'Donnell • Jan 2, 2019 at 4:16 PM

The Trump administration is taking a harsher approach to school discipline and suspending students, but don’t expect any quick changes here in Ohio.

Key education officials for the state still want to reduce suspensions, despite the changes in Washington. In addition, the state legislature just passed a bill this year to limit them.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made a major shift in how the federal government views suspensions, removing on Friday an Obama-administration warning that schools that suspend minority students at a greater rate than white students can be subject to civil rights investigations.

That 2014 guidance had aimed to make sure some students weren’t pushed out of classes for minor infractions, leading them to fall further behind in learning. Supporters repeatedly noted that minority students have been suspended nationally at much higher rates than white students, forcing them out of classes and making them fall behind in learning, often never to recover.

But the guidance also drew complaints that it tied the hands of schools to punish disruptive, bullying or dangerous students who can damage the education of others.

Among the critics has been Max Eden, a Beachwood native and now a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a free-market think tank. He has reported multiple assaults of students and teachers across the country that he attributes to lack of discipline because of concerns about triggering investigations.

“This can lead to incredibly dangerous dynamics in class,” Eden told reporters earlier this year. “Teachers know they can no longer rely on their principals for support and kids know that.“

The Federal Commission on School Safety, a panel President Donald Trump appointed after the school shootings in Parkland, Fla., earlier this year, last week agreed with Eden and recommended eliminating the 2014 guidance.

“In too many instances…I've heard from teachers and advocates that the previous administration's discipline guidance often led to school environments where discipline decisions were based on a student's race and where statistics became more important than the safety of students and teachers," DeVos said in a statement Friday as she removed that guidance.

She left discipline decisions mostly to schools themselves.

“Discipline is a matter on which classroom teachers and local school leaders deserve and need autonomy,” DeVos wrote. “I would encourage them to continue to implement discipline reforms that they believe will foster improved outcomes for their students."

The move has drawn protests from civil rights groups and Obama-era officials.

“Rescinding this important school discipline guidance signals that the federal government does not care that too many schools have policies and practices that push children of color out of school,” wrote Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an organization of 153 national and state organizations including the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and the Urban League. “Federal nondiscrimination laws have not changed. Any school with discipline policies or practices that discriminate against children based on race, ethnicity, sex, or disability is still breaking the law.”

The two officials who last held DeVos’ post called the decision “shameful.”

“Today’s recommendation to roll back guidance that would protect students from unfair, systemic school discipline practices is beyond disheartening,” former education secretaries Arne Duncan and John King said in a joint statement.

How much effect either the former or current administration will have is unclear. A survey this year by the American Association of School Administrators found that only 16.5 percent of members have made any real changes to discipline because of the 2014 warning.

About one percent reported that reducing suspensions made things worse, seven percent said that changing discipline made things better at their school, with others reporting that results have been mixed or it is too early to tell how changes are working.

But many schools in Ohio have been reducing suspensions anyway. As we reported late last year, Cincinnati has long banned suspensions for students in third grade or younger, while reducing suspensions for older students. In most cases, schools use in-school suspensions to separate students from others, while still having them do course work.

Cleveland has also reduced suspensions as part of its push to for better Social and Emotional Learning at its schools.

Cleveland school CEO Eric Gordon said he was “disappointed” at DeVos decision because of suspensions’ “disproportional effect on minority students and students living in poverty.”

“CMSD will not change our approach and will continue to work aggressively to avoid suspensions and other removals from schools unless it is absolutely necessary,” he said.

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, a Kettering Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said she didn’t need Obama’s 2014 guidance to believe that removing kids from class only sets them further behind other students and makes it more likely they will stay behind and drop out.

Several studies, she said, led her to seek a statewide limit suspending kids third grade and younger. That measure was added to other school safety issues in House Bill 318, which passed the legislature easily and took effect in November.

“The Trump decision, knowing how he disparages scientific evidence, is probably not based on anything like that,” Lehner said. It’s unfortunate that we’re ignoring the very real negative consequences, at least on young children.”

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria said he’d rather not focus on suspensions as an isolated issue, but as a product of the climate and culture of a school. He said he wants to keep working on the social and emotional needs of students and on reinforcing good behavior in positive ways.

“Rather than focusing on just reducing this outcome (suspensions), you focus on doing the things that make for a meaningful reduction,” he said.

He added that schools need to “systematically address the culture and climate in your building, such that it’s only the most extreme situations that need action.”

Though Ohio officials and DeVos disagree in many crucial ways, they agree on one big issue - that working on social and emotional issues in schools and improving culture matters most.

“(Schools’) approach should start by fostering a positive climate and a culture of connectedness,” DeVos said as she announced her decision Friday.

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