DOJ Letter on Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline Causes Conservative Uproar; Local Educators Remain Unfazed

BY CHERYL SLAVIN

Did the Department of Justice dictate last week that educators base discipline on racial quotas, as Foxnews and other outlets suggested, or didn’t they?

As supporters of the controversial memo would have it, in an effort to reduce drop-out rates, recidivism and long-term legal problems experienced disproportionately by minority students nationwide, the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education have recently issued a joint “Dear Colleague Letter” defining racial disparity and delineating how it is reflected in school disciplinary practices. The letter also set out suggested guidelines that schools can employ both to detect the presence of racial disparity and to address the situation.

The letter has generated a certain amount of backlash due to language therein, and it is not clear of what consequence, if any, the language truly is. Though critics have suggested the letter seeks to put “quotas” on disciplinary actions based on race, Rockland educators said the letter changes no actual policies.

Several media outlets, including Foxnews.com and Dailycaller.com, have focused on particular passages in the letter to claim that the DOJ is ordering schools to make race equality more important than school safety and discipline, and that schools are being told they must discipline students in equal numbers based on race, even if a student’s behavior would otherwise call for punishment. However, a close reading of all 32 pages of the DOJ letter clearly shows this is not the case.

“The letter is a guide, not a mandate,” points out Nyack Schools Superintendent James Montesano. The letter clearly states on page two “This guidance does not add requirements to applicable law.”

“The intention is to stimulate discussion and reflection on an achievement gap among minority students disproportionate to their numbers,” Montesano continues. He agrees with the overall direction of the letter to examine disciplinary practices and find suitable alternatives to exclusionary discipline such as suspension or expulsion.

Further, while the letter examines the origins and effects of racial disparity in school discipline, it never once says that schools must sacrifice safety or security for the sake of racial parity. There are no requirements for “quotas,” or “race-based punishments,” contrary to Foxnews.com. Rather, the letter sets out guidelines for further examination when data shows that a neutral policy equally applied still has a disparate adverse impact on a certain population. The guidelines are intended to help educators determine whether the disparate impact demonstrates unlawful discrimination.

The data used by the DOJ, collected by the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), has demonstrated that students of certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be disciplined more than their peers. For instance, although African-American students represent 15 percent of students in the CRDC, they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled.

Ultimately, the letter “provides critical guidance to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to learn and grow in school.” Some are enthused by its contents and do claim it is ground breaking.

“This is a big step,” says Joyce James, an “equity consultant” from Texas who recently gave a presentation in Rockland about racial disparity and disproportionate minority representation in social work systems. “The DOJ is holding schools accountable to use data to see what’s happening and raise awareness about the internalized messages we all have that drive discriminatory behavior.”

But local educators assert that in their schools and districts, at least, discipline is already enforced in an non-discriminatory manner.

“We have a Code of Conduct that outlines the same consequences for every student,” states Sean Michel, Superintendent of Chester Union School District. “Every student is expected to follow the code, and all are subject to the same rules. We do not have minority disproportion in Chester.”

Ken Mitchell, superintendent of South Orangetown, also asserts, “We view all disciplinary actions on an independent basis. Our students are all provided with the same due process.” He also stated that the policies addressed in the DOJ letter were “not new” and that racial equity has not been an issue in his district.

At North Rockland High School, principal Harry Leonardatos also barely shrugged at the DOJ memo. “We’re in compliance with all DOJ requirements,” he said. “We report our data as required.” The letter, in his view, was simply “a reminder and guidance” to remain aware of the issues it raised, something that he, and his colleagues, already do.

To read the actual text of the letter, go to justice.gov/crt/about/edu/documents/dcl.pdf.