The Department of Justice on Student Suspensions

A recent memo accuses educators of racial discrimination while failing, with a few exceptions, to address the real problems.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a series of guidelines regarding the suspension of students from school. In short, though partially correct, the DOJ report is misguided, misleading, and missing key elements relevant to the issue.

Where the DOJ is wrong

The most disturbing part of the DOJ memo suggests that schools unfairly discriminate against students based on race.

The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice (Departments) are issuing this guidance to assist public elementary and secondary schools in meeting their obligations under Federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The Departments recognize the commitment and effort of educators across the United States to provide their students with an excellent education. The Departments believe that guidance on how to identify, avoid, and remedy discriminatory discipline will assist schools in providing all students with equal educational opportunities.

This is egregious. Suggesting that American schools, its administrators and its teachers are guilty of widespread racism has no basis in fact and has been rightfully denounced by most pundits. (Personal anecdote: as a teacher for over 28 years – almost exclusively in majority minority schools, including stints in Harlem and South Los Angeles – I have never seen a teacher or administrator act in a prejudicial way toward any minority kid.)

Simply put, schools have rules and if a student disobeys them, he or she is disciplined accordingly. And if minority kids are breaking the rules more often than other kids, shouldn’t they be punished more? That having been said, there are inequities that do need to be addressed that did not appear in the DOJ memo. More on that shortly.

Where the DOJ is right

The DOJ is correct when it charges that schools have become too dependent on law enforcement to solve internal problems. Many “zero tolerance” policies need to end. In too many cases, the guidelines have become downright silly. Should dress-code violations and posting a picture of a pellet gun on Instagram really become police matters? Is it right to suspend a student for chewing a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun? Does it make the least bit of sense to suspend kids who are truant? “Okay, Johnny, we are going to keep you out of school today because you ditched school yesterday.”

Also, as one who has seen many a student suspended during my stint in middle school, I can tell you that in most cases the action is useless. After a suspension, I always asked what they did with their time when they were out of school. By far the most prevalent answer was, “Watched TV.”

Some punishment. Yeah, that’ll learn ‘em!

After a while, my school wised up and began employing “in-house” suspensions. In these cases, the students had to come to school, but didn’t go to their regular classes. By doing this, the school made a statement and tried to deal with the problem via the dean, the guidance counselor and the assistant principal. Also, the kid didn’t have a day off to watch TV and the school didn’t lose the funding it would have lost had the student been absent from school.

What the DOJ did not address

Why do kids misbehave in school? There is no one answer, but the following are four important ones:

1. Bad parenting. An obvious one and as RiShawn Biddle says, it’s a tough one to overcome. If a parent is not willing to parent properly, teachers and their schools have a much bigger challenge on their hands than with a child from a solid home.

2. Undiagnosed learning disability. This happens, but more often than not, students are misdiagnosed and often given needless medication. For example, if a boy is bored in school and “acts out” he’s likely to be painted with the ADHD brush and drugged, while the real cause of his behavior goes unaddressed.

3. Student boredom due to unqualified and/or inexperienced teachers. Yup, this is a big problem and has been for many years, but it too went unacknowledged by the DOJ. In fact, if you are searching for discrimination in public education, this is the place to look. In 2011, an ACLU lawsuit rightfully claimed that high-minority schools are discriminated against by the seniority laws that are enshrined in the California state education code. Because they invariably have a high percentage of new hires, the lowest performing schools usually take the brunt of the layoffs under this system, destabilizing them further by requiring a revolving door of substitutes. Judge William Highberger agreed and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Unfortunately, the decision was appealed and overturned, giving the teachers unions a victory at the expense of minority kids.

Another lawsuit, Vergara v. California, is due to begin in Los Angeles next week.  It asserts that

… five “outdated statutes” prevent administrators from making employment decisions in students’ interest. The tenure statute forces districts to decide after teachers are on the job only 18 months whether to grant them permanent job status. Once granted tenure, they gain due-process rights that make it expensive and difficult to fire them even if they’re “grossly ineffective.” And then, when an economic downturn comes – witness the last four years – a Last In/First Out (LIFO) requirement leads to layoffs based strictly on seniority, not competency.

If successful, this lawsuit will remove the tenure, seniority and arcane dismissal statutes from the California education code and render them unconstitutional, thus making it easier to get rid of incompetent and criminal teachers while outlawing seniority as a method of teacher-retention. While this litigation will help all students in the state, inner-city kids would benefit the most. As I wrote in City Journal in 2012,

Struggling inner-city schools end up suffering the most, as the lawsuit states: “One recent study showed that a school in the highest poverty quartile is 65 percent more likely to have a teacher laid off than a school in the lowest poverty quartile. As a result of seniority-based layoffs, the highest poverty schools in California are likely to lose 30 percent more teachers than wealthier schools. The disproportionate number of vacancies in those schools are then filled by transferring lower performing teachers, including grossly ineffective teachers, from other schools.”

The California Teachers Association has joined this suit in an attempt to protect its turf at the expense of the poor and minority students. Sadly, the DOJ is MIA on tenure and seniority and the unions’ efforts to keep them in place.

4. Teachers receive little or no classroom management training in schools of education. Little talked about, classroom management should be a very important part of every teacher’s training, but sadly it’s not. (The DOJ memo does allude to classroom management techniques, but says the school should provide it and makes no reference to ed schools.) Scandalously, my teacher training at Cal State had zero class hours set aside in how to manage a classroom. (My science methods teacher, realizing that this was a huge mistake, spent part of his classes giving us desperately needed tips on the subject.)

A new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality claims that classroom management continues to be one of the greatest challenges new teachers face. Surveys repeatedly document that novice teachers struggle in this area, and their school district supervisors concur.

  • A 1997 poll revealed that 58 percent of PK-12 teachers said that behavior that disrupted instruction occurred “most of the time or fairly often.”
  • A 2003 survey of teachers found that nearly half indicated that “quite a large number” of new teachers need a lot more training on effective ways to handle students who are discipline problems.
  • In 2012, over 40 percent of new teachers surveyed reported feeling either “not at all prepared” or “only somewhat prepared” to handle a range of classroom management or discipline situations.
  • In a 2013 survey, classroom management was “the top problem” identified by teachers.

It’s no secret that ed schools are, for the most part, a ridiculous waste of time and money. This is due in no small part to the fact that the nation’s #1 accrediting organization, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), is beyond useless. The mission of this organization, set up by the National Education Association in 1954, is to “help establish high quality teacher preparation.” Sixty years later, I can’t help but wonder when they are going to start.

In sum, the DOJ has raised a subject that needs to be discussed. But playing the race card – saying that “racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem” – is ludicrous. Does the DOJ really think that most teachers, their administrators and school board members are closet Klan members? And why aren’t the teachers unions defending their members against the DOJ’s scurrilous charge? (The American Federation of Teachers did issue a wishy-washy statement including a few suggestions that they think would help, but did not directly address the DOJ racism accusation.)

There are so many things we can do to improve education, but due to the intransigence of the education establishment and the teachers unions with their one-size-fits-all bureaucratic diktats, we are stuck in the status quo muck. Not mentioned in the DOJ report, the following reform measures would improve things considerably:

  • Give school districts more latitude in placing teachers and more power to fire poor performers.
  • Ditch the step-and-ladder pay scale and pay good teachers more to work in impoverished areas.
  • Demand good results from all teachers and pay them accordingly.
  • Insist that ed schools teach prospective teachers effective classroom management techniques.
  • Get rid of seniority, tenure and the endless dismissal statutes that exist in many states.

Harping on the race angle and blaming teachers for discriminatory practices are needless distractions that do no kid of any color or ethnicity any good. In fact, the DOJ report will make things worse.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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