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School Disciplinary Policies Must Be Local

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The Trump administration is considering rescinding a Dear Colleague Letter, sent to public school administrators nationwide in 2014, which provided guidelines regarding school discipline policies consistent with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

According to Title VI, racial discrimination at institutions receiving federal funds is illegal.

The letter was sent by the Obama administration Department of Justice's civil rights division and the Department of Education's office for civil rights.

The point of the letter was, according to then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to provide "information on how schools and districts can meet their legal obligations to administer student discipline without discrimination on race, color, or national origin."

Sounds reasonable enough. But a closer look reveals that these were far more than guidelines. Behind the scenes, the Obama administration's Department of Education used the DCL to aggressively launch investigations to assure that school districts implemented these guidelines, which constituted a highly questionable departure from what civil rights law requires.

The DCL informed school officials that they would be investigating more than disciplinary policies applied variably across racial lines. Now, uniformly constructed and applied disciplinary policies would be viewed as noncompliant if they produce disparate results.

One doesn't need to be a constitutional or civil rights law scholar to see this as a problem.

And, in fact, when current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education in 1981, his guidelines were quite clear that discrimination constituted different rules or different application of those rules between races -- not uniform rules and applications that produce disparate results.

The Obama administration's DCL guidelines overturned and replaced Thomas' guidelines.

As documented by scholar Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute, the whole point was to change the role of the Department of Education's office for civil rights from an entity that monitors compliance with the law to an entity that decides what policies and procedures school administrators should be following -- and to find them noncompliant if out of line.

Given that we're talking about the threat of cutting off federal funds, can there be any question that public school officials became more interested in the wants of federal government than what the best policies were locally?

According to Eden, from 2009 to 2017, "at least 350 school districts -- serving nearly 10 million children, or about one-fifth of all public elementary and secondary schools students in the U.S. -- were investigated for the express purpose of coercing districts into changing their disciplinary policies."

Eden continues, "According to (then-Secretary of Education) Duncan, societal ills such as poverty, broken families, and neighborhood crime have little effect on student behavior. Rather, racism among teachers and administrators is responsible for the fact that black students are more than three times as likely as white students to be suspended."

President Trump's Department of Education's office for civil rights should withdraw and rescind this 2014 Dear Colleague Letter.

Can it really be that hard to appreciate that all discipline problems of black children may not be rooted in racism? Every child is unique. Personal challenges can only be handled personally and intimately, and thus should only involve local school officials, the child, parents and their supportive community.

At minimum, let's restore the Department of Education's civil rights job to what it should be -- monitoring compliance with the law instead of deciding how local educators should run their schools.

More local flexibility and mobility through vouchers or other parental choice platforms may be exactly what students need, not an overhaul of our entire public schooling apparatus.

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