The recent efforts by the Obama administration to address the issue of racial and ethnic disparities in school discipline have received criticism during a public briefing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Last spring, officials announced a new approach that not only focuses on intentional discrimination against students, but also examines the disproportionate impact of policies on specific groups, even if there is no intention of discrimination. The goal is to ensure that schools are implementing discipline fairly, taking into account the unique needs of each school and student.
During the briefing held on February 11th, Ricardo Soto, the deputy assistant secretary for the Education Department’s office for civil rights, provided further details on the new policy. He emphasized that the administration is utilizing all available tools, including the "disparate-impact theory," to ensure fair discipline in schools. Soto acknowledged that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to discipline, as each school and student population is different. However, Commissioner Todd F. Gaziano expressed concerns about the administration’s interpretation of disparate-impact analysis, stating that it places an undue burden on schools to justify any disparities.
Several teachers who spoke at the briefing echoed Gaziano’s concerns. Allen Zollman, an English as a second language teacher at an urban middle school in Pennsylvania, expressed opposition to having to consider disparate impact when removing a disruptive student from his classroom, as he sees it as a constraint on effective discipline. Jamie Frank, a teacher with 11 years of experience in the suburban Washington area, highlighted the pressure on school administrators to reduce overrepresentation of disciplinary action against minority groups. She shared an example of a policy change in her district that eliminated a penalty for students who failed to attend class, which she believed unfairly burdened teachers to compensate for lost work.
However, some school district administrators who testified at the briefing supported the focus on disparate impact. Hertica Y. Martin, the executive director of elementary and secondary education for New York state’s Rochester public schools, reported that the district successfully reduced the overrepresentation of expelled African-American males through the implementation of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support. This approach has helped promote fairer disciplinary actions. Some commissioners also expressed sympathy towards the civil rights focus on disparate impact, suggesting the opportunity to offer best practices to school districts. However, they also emphasized the need for transparency in examining the effectiveness of remedies to eliminate disparate impact, in order to address concerns that the federal government may be interfering for the sake of "political correctness."
The briefing marked the first meeting for a new slate of commissioners appointed by President Barack Obama and Congress. The commission’s new members include Dina Titus, Martin R. Castro, and Roberta Achtenberg. One seat on the commission remains vacant, but it is expected to be filled by Michael Yaki. These new commissioners will play a crucial role in shaping the direction and policies of the commission.