Another side of the suspensions argument

The Richmond Times-Dispatch published an interesting, if a bit misguided, critique on what it calls the federal Department of Education’s “double standard” on K-16 discipline policies.

The Education Department is now investigating 192 colleges and universities for not prosecuting sexual misconduct cases more aggressively. And yet for grades K-12, the Education Department has been hammering schools for being too aggressive on school discipline, especially when it comes to suspensions, because of their alleged “disparate impact” on minorities.

The author’s premise makes sense on a certain level; I suppose, in a way, the Department is sending a “mixed message” on discipline–on the one hand, it is saying to clamp down, while on the other it is advising schools to lighten up.

But this argument falls apart when you consider that the DOE’s guidelines revolve around completely different behaviors. The writer makes it seem as if the DOE has said to treat sexual offenses more lightly at the K-12 level but more harshly at the college level. But that’s not the case. The criticism of schools with high suspension rates is that suspensions are issued often for what amount to be frivolous “offenses” or situations that could have been deescalated or addressed differently. I doubt there is anyone who would not advocate for harsh punishments for sexually based offenses at the high school level (and this is another reason why a full ban on suspensions without exemptions would be problematic in K-12).

The author’s second argument is more interesting, and more troubling for those with progressive views on discipline:

Two years ago the department issued guidance warning schools that they “violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies” if those policies affect minority students more than non-minority students. Under that standard, a school that metes out exactly the same punishment to every student who breaks the rules is not discriminating if black students commit fewer infractions per capita — but it is discriminating if they happen to commit more.

Since schools cannot punish white students who have done nothing wrong, at certain times the only way to avoid this dilemma, and hence the wrath of federal officials, will be to refrain from punishing minority students in cases where the students are at fault.

In short, an Education Department fixated on leftist identity politics has incentivized colleges and universities to convict some students who might be innocent — and incentivized K-12 schools not to convict some students who might be guilty. For liberals trying to unpack the mystery of Donald TrumpI’s appeal, this would be a good place to start.

This is a hard argument to confront. Is it not possible that a school with a genuine commitment to ending racial biases could nonetheless find itself with a disproportionately higher number of black and Hispanic students facing harsh disciplinary consequences? And that, facing the possibility of sanctions as a result of those numbers, that school might feel and act on pressure to “even out” those numbers?

It’s possible, but it would be the exception rather than the norm. To invoke this argument is to blot out what is inarguably a real race problem in school discipline. It’s unfortunate that schools who are doing the right thing have to be extra cautious about the outward appearance of their discipline stats (see Campbell’s Law about measurements corrupting the processes they were intending to measure), but it’s worth it to enact policies that force schools to look hard at the way in which their discipline practices may be disproportionately hurting groups of students and make changes if necessary.

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