Students are learning less and fighting more. The Biden Administration, which seems to view virtually every policy matter through a racial lens, however, is making it more difficult for schools to actually protect teachers and students.
The dispute over how to discipline disruptive students is nothing new. Unfortunately, this Administration, like its predecessor under President Obama, has made it a cultural and legal flashpoint, with little regard for the actual safety of those involved, including teachers.
The current and ongoing debate about school discipline was teed up in January 2014 when President Obama’s Education and Justice departments issued a “Dear Colleague” letter outlining how Uncle Sam wanted schools to administer “discipline” without racially discriminatory effect.
Four years later, the Trump Administration rescinded the Obama “guidance” on school discipline and issued its own “Dear Colleague” letter on December 21, 2018, returning primary responsibility for disciplining students back to local schools and school boards.
For the past two years, the Biden Administration’s departments of Education and Justice have been “reviewing” Trump’s 2018 guidance letter, and on May 26th, issued its own “Dear Colleague” letter, re-focusing on federally determined “racial disparities” in school discipline.
Each of these “Dear Colleague” letters, although not possessed of direct legal power, carries significant weight in alerting state and local schools how the federal government will come down on them if they fail to follow the “guidance” contained therein. The Obama-Biden approach to school discipline was and now remains, one that presumes racial discrimination in any discipline policy where minority students are disciplined at a higher rate, or more harshly, than their non-minority counterparts.
Thus, starting in January 2014 the Department of Justice was empowered, if not encouraged, to sue a local or state school upon receiving a complaint that a disciplinary action or policy was “discriminatory.” Schools were advised not to mete out direct disciplinary action, but rather to assess the “root causes” of a student’s “misbehavior.”
Essentially missing from this student-centric approach is any real concern for the safety of teachers, school principals, and other students. Indeed, the just-released “Dear Colleague” letter, which emphasizes the availability of federal funds “to support schools,” is silent on using those taxpayer dollars to protect teachers and school administrators.
The Obama-initiated policy also was intimidating for local and state schools, each of which was under constant threat of being sued if the U.S. Attorney General determined that a disciplinary action or practice was employed more harshly against a black student rather than a white student.
Despite sound constitutional analysis that such a policy as reflected in the 2014 guidance resulting in de facto “racial quotas in suspensions” was itself unconstitutional and at odds with existing federal civil rights laws, the Obama Administration plowed ahead with suing various schools for disciplining students too harshly.
The result of this “restorative justice” approach has been a marked increase in the number and violent nature of student misbehavior, a trend significantly exacerbated by the widespread use of remote learning during the COVID pandemic.
The increases in the number and severity of students engaging in serious “misbehavior,” including the use of firearms and other weapons, has become so obvious that even the left-leaning NPR has been forced to acknowledge the problem. In a program on the topic just last week, experts discussed several examples of violent student behaviors in Democrat-run cities including Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. One expert, Wayne Ivey, noted that students feel empowered to behave violently because they know they face no serious disciplinary consequences. Elsewhere, teachers are quitting their jobs because they are “afraid for their safety.”
Despite all this — and in the face of continuing reports showing that students are failing miserably to achieve proficiency in such key subjects as mathematics, reading, and history — the best the Biden Administration can muster in response is to blame the pandemic and “politicians” (read, “Republicans”) looking to cut school budgets, and to once again issue “guidance” that threatens schools with federal lawsuits if their discipline policies run afoul of its obsessive focus on “racial disparity.”
The Administration deserves an “F” for its policies supposed to encourage learning and to protect teachers and students alike. Parents and teachers across the country should keep this report card in mind when they vote next year.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.