RELEASE: Rescinding Obama Discipline Guidance Could Exacerbate Disparities Among Students of Color, Students With Disabilities, Low-Income Students

Washington, D.C. — As Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos considers whether to rescind the school discipline guidance put forth by the Obama administration, the Center for American Progress, joined by Educators for Excellence and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) today, are warning a rescission could exacerbate existing disparities among students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities in preschool, as well as elementary through high school. Rather than overusing exclusionary discipline by suspending and expelling students, schools should consider other, more positive approaches that build a healthy school climate. DeVos should give school districts support in implementing these positive approaches—rather than rescinding the very guidance that would help them.

In concert with this event, CAP is releasing two new analyses: The first report reveals that although children with disabilities represent a relatively small proportion of the population of children ages 3 to 5 attending preschool, they make up a disproportionately large share of suspensions and expulsions. Children with any disability or social-emotional challenge make up only 13 percent of the preschool population, but they constitute 75 percent of all early suspensions and expulsions. The data further show that:

  • The odds of being suspended or expelled were 43 times higher for children with behavioral problems.
  • The odds of being suspended or expelled were 33 times higher for children with ADHD.
  • The odds of being suspended or expelled were more than 14 times higher for children with anxiety.
  • The odds of being suspended or expelled were 10 times higher for children with autism/ASD.
  • The odds of being suspended or expelled were more than 7.5  times higher for children with developmental delays.
  • The odds of being suspended or expelled were more than 4 times higher for children with speech disorders.

CAP’s data is derived from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 National Survey for Children’s Health (NSCH), the first nationally representative survey to include questions on early discipline using a sample of children attending both public and private early learning programs.

CAP’s second analysis explored data from the nation’s two largest school districts—New York City and Los Angeles—and uncovered huge racial disparities in school days missed. White students make up 15 percent of the New York City public schools but only account for 8 percent of the days lost due to suspensions. African American students comprise 27 percent of the district but account for almost half—47 percent—of the days lost due to suspensions. Similarly, African American students account for just 8 percent of Los Angeles Unified School District enrollment but 39 percent of days suspended. The reasons for the suspensions vary in severity, but these racial disparities exist for both minor and serious infractions.

“As a society we have an obligation to educate every child, not just those who come to school free of trauma or learning challenges. Study after study tells us that positive school climates are created when every child feels they have a place there, but when we push some kids out,  it creates a punitive climate which effects not just those who are pushed out, but the whole school.  If the Obama-era guidance stays in place, we can continue to chart a positive path forward on the issue of school discipline, but if Secretary DeVos rescinds the guidance, it will be a moral leap backwards for this country,” said Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT).

“The Obama administration took critical steps to protect historically disadvantaged students, and yet Secretary DeVos has signaled that she may undo this progress. We hope she will reconsider. Children with disabilities and children of color—many of whom come from low-income families—have the most to gain from high quality preschool and K-12 education, and yet the most to lose. Expelling or suspending children who are most in need of high-quality, supportive learning undermines education’s role as the great equalizer and will only worsen existing disparities,” said Winnie Stachelberg, executive vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress.

“We regularly hear from teachers across the country that moving away from punitive discipline practices that disproportionately punish students of color is difficult but imperative work. Suspensions and expulsions don’t improve student behavior, negatively impact students’ lives, and increase the likelihood that they will come into contact with the criminal justice system and so they should be used sparingly and as a last resort. The Obama-era 2014 school discipline guidance started a critical dialogue across the country that supported educators to explore proven, nonpunitive practices that help students understand the impact of their behavior, strengthen their relationships with teachers and peers, and come to see school as a place they belong. E4E teachers will continue to advocate for this important work and to preserve the 2014 discipline guidance through our In Class, Not Cuffs campaign,” Evan Stone, co-founder and co-CEO of Educators for Excellence.

Public Schools Must Address Disparities in Discipline Rates” by Laura Jimenez, Abel McDaniels, and Sarah Shapiro

Suspensions Are Not Support: The Disciplining of Preschoolers With Disabilities” by Cristina Novoa and Rasheed Malik