In Our View: Disciplinary Conundrum

Federal guidelines on avoiding racial disparity in student punishment fall short

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Ideally, a recent directive from the federal government regarding disciplinary action in schools will raise plenty of thoughtful discussion — as well as effective methods for combating discriminatory enforcement of policies. But the danger is that it could obfuscate other meaningful issues surrounding student safety in public schools.

Federal officials last week issued guidelines for school districts on how to avoid racial disparities in student punishment. The U.S. departments of justice and education reported data demonstrating that African Americans were punished more harshly and more frequently than whites in similar situations. According to the education department's Office for Civil Rights, black students were three times more likely than white peers to be expelled or suspended. Because of that, the feds sent a 23-page letter to school districts stressing that the government would actively enforce federal laws against bias in school discipline and, for the first time, providing discipline guidelines.

Deborah J. Vagins, senior legislative council for the American Civil Liberties Union in this state, said: "This guidance makes it crystal clear for schools what their obligations are under our civil rights laws . . . This is a victory for all who care about creating environments where students can thrive." Chris Korsmo of Washington's League of Education Voters, told The Seattle Times: "Students can't learn if they aren't in the classroom."

Yet this points out the conundrum in the federal directive. While students can't learn if they are not in school, all too often the presence of certain students prevents others from learning. Disruptive students can distract teachers from their primary duty of teaching and can distract classmates from their primary duty of learning. School officials should, indeed, seek ways to keep kids in school, but they should ensure that it doesn't come at the expense of other students who obey the rules and are trying their best to learn.

The job of a teacher is difficult enough. Students these days are faced with family and social issues that can negatively impact their ability to learn, and school administrators and district officials must retain the ability to judge each disciplinary situation on a case-by-case basis while working to foster the best learning environment for all students.

"Vancouver Public Schools uses a variety of student discipline strategies, including peer resolution and re-engagement plans," Mike Stromme, the district's associate superintendent of teaching and learning, told The Columbian.

For their part, federal officials should, unequivocally, be watchdogs when it comes to discrimination. The data cannot be dismissed, nor can all jurisdictions be counted upon to act with the purest of intentions in avoiding bias. Federal officials say they have received 1,600 complaints since 2009 alleging bias in school discipline, and in 2011 the Los Angeles Unified School District entered an agreement to track and report discipline data and eliminate "inequitable and disproportionate" practices.

But an attempt to dictate student punishment and bend school districts into a one-size-fits-all style of discipline is an overreach on the part of the federal government. School districts historically have been controlled at the local level first and the state level second, and the Obama Administration has undertaken several actions in recent years to undermine that long-standing tradition. The federal government must be vigilant in protecting against racism, but it must avoid trying to dictate the behavioral standards of individual communities.