July 13 2018

The California Endowment is speaking out strongly in defense of national efforts to reduce racial disparities in school suspensions and promote equity in education.

According to many media reports, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is considering revoking landmark guidance on school discipline issued jointly in 2014 by the Departments of Education and Justice.

When then-Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder released the 2014 guidance, they explained that its goal was to “improve safety by making sure that climates are welcoming and that responses to misbehavior are fair, non-discriminatory and effective.”  It included a package of resources that highlighted proven alternatives to school suspension, emphasizing prevention and positive behavioral skill-building.

The 2014 guidance also shared research proving what reform advocates had long known: that students of color and students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended than White and non-disabled students—and these trends are not the result of behavioral or socio-economic factors. It further explained that inequitable school discipline policies may violate federal law, even when disparities are caused by unconscious bias.

In a letter to Secretary DeVos, The California Endowment’s President and CEO, Dr. Robert K. Ross, warned that repealing the guidance would be a “huge step backward.” He argued that California’s experience not only shows that reducing suspensions is possible, but also goes hand-in-hand with increasing student achievement and raising graduation rates.

Dr. Ross also shared results from surveys of students, parents, and school staff reporting that people feel safer on campus when suspensions are not the primary tool used to address student behavior. It’s all about creating calm school environments, where everyone feels welcomed and supported.

During the past five years, California has reduced suspension rates by nearly half and cut disparities at the same time. But we still have far to go. Students of color and students with disabilities are still more likely to suspended than other students. And, although California recently extended its ban on “willful defiance” suspensions for K-3 students, many districts continue to use this vague catch-all category to exclude older students from school, even for minor infractions like talking back.

No matter what Secretary DeVos and the Trump Administration decide, The California Endowment, our partners throughout the state, and like-minded organizations across the United States will continue to fight for fair and effective school discipline policies. Continued progress is essential for the health and well-being of our young people.

But it sure would be easier if the Department of Education was working with us, instead of ignoring data, research, and the voices of students and parents.

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