Brief #23—Education

Policy Summary
Discriminatory policies that harm and deny students of color equal opportunities for quality instruction time at school violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs that receive federal financial assistance. According to Civil Rights Data Collection, students of color across the U.S. are disproportionately suspended and expelled for the most minor or subjective offenses, such as “looking disrespectful” or “disrupting class” by burping. Innocuous behaviors like these are often labeled as hostile offenses, placing students at higher risk for suspension and gradually pushing them out of the school system.

The Department of Education (DOE) under Betsy DeVos has been swiftly closing more than 1,200 cases of civil rights violations in school districts and universities across the country. While the 12 regional bureaus under Obama required approval from headquarters to settle or dismiss a case, DeVos has essentially de-centralized the decision-making process and scaled back “compliance review” – a type of civil rights investigation that looks at issues through a systemic lens often prompted by data, news reports or direct complaints by students and parents. While 51% of cases that took more than 180 days culminated in civil rights violations or corrective changes under the Obama administration, that rate has now dropped to 35%. For instance, the DOE closed a 2015 Desoto County School District case regarding the school’s discriminatory disciplinary practices which used corporal punishment on 852 students – more than half of whom were Black. DOE claimed that the Title VI complaint was closed due to insufficient evidence. However, there was ongoing investigation and data revealing that Black students in the county accounted for 55% of suspensions/expulsions and over 60% of referrals to law enforcement by the schools, despite constituting only 35% of district enrollment.

Furthermore, complaints regarding students with limited English language proficiency that were previously upheld under the Obama administration dropped from 70% to 52%; students with disabilities – from 45% to 34%; sexual harassment/violence – from 41% to 31%; racial harassment – from 31% to 21%. Under DeVos, a case processing manual has given investigators greater discretion to dismiss complaints; for example, complaints can be dismissed if they appear to hold “unreasonable” burden. DeVos has also barred complainants from appealing the Office for Civil Rights’ (OCR) decisions and plans to shrink its staff from 569 to 529, according to its 2019 budget proposal. Under federal law, OCR is responsible for ensuring equal access to education and investigating allegations of discrimination in schools and colleges. Families and students can file complaints with OCR. If violations are substantiated, OCR negotiates a settlement or prescribes corrective changes, which it sometimes oversees. It receives more than 10,000 complaints annually and has a target of resolving 80% of them within six months. LEARN MORE

Fortunately, ProPublica has been analyzing data on more than 40,000 civil rights cases and has made accessible the status of all pending and prior cases within the last three years on its website. To date, it has added 220 cases (most were resolved in a two-week period in December 2017) omitted from the DOE’s recent data. Search results are organized by the type of discrimination issue and provide general details on the status of each complaint. The data is retrieved through the Freedom of Information Act on DOE’s website. LEARN MORE

Elizabeth Hill, a DOE spokeswoman, said that the new DeVos approach has “restored the role of OCR investigators as neutral fact-finders,” providing closure for both students and institutions. However, the rapid changes and rising dismissal of complaints without full and rigorous investigations reveal the current DOE’s changing priorities. While OCR previously made systematic and time-consuming investigations under Obama, the Trump administration is concentrating solely on individual complaints that can be quickly resolved and attempting to clear a backlog of potentially expansive cases. This strategy is a large shift away from compliance reviews and the exploration of systemic issues rooted in state-sanctioned segregation that marked schools, such as DeSoto County, for decades after Brown v. Board of Education. The unfortunate reality is that massive resistance strategies to past federal orders of school integration remain today. We see this in the fact that, in DeSoto County, there has never been a Black superintendent or member of the elected school board although Black students constitute over a third of the school district’s population.

School codes of discipline that include zero tolerance policies and vague, subjective, and discretionary language drive these discipline disparities. The lack of clarity and the high rates of disparities between groups suggest that typical, developmental behaviors of Black students are pre-emptively defined as violations while similar behaviors by White students are not. In a society so shaped by race and gender, no one is immune to experiencing the biases of our times. Educators are people, and our perceptions of differences can sometimes be based on involuntary ideas that derive from latent stereotypes about race, gender, sexuality, and other aspects of identity. Unlearning ingrained societal biases and negative perceptions about other groups means a commitment to a lifelong learning process.

Research shows that harsh and exclusionary discipline foster school-to-prison pipelines by increasing the risk that students will fall behind in academics, drop out or become involved in the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems. School pushout is particularly gendered and racialized for young Black girls. The stereotype of Black children as unruly, incorrigible or inherently ungovernable has affected society’s conscious and unconscious responses to Black girls who are almost four times more likely to be incarcerated than White girls, and the rate is dangerously increasing today. Once pushed out, Black girls are the most vulnerable to become victims of child sex trafficking. Students with disabilities and other marginalized groups are also disciplined severely at the intersection of their identities (e.g. race and disability). To say the least, the collateral consequences are devastating for affected students, and they ultimately make us less safe and more inequitable as a society.

Engagement Resources

  • National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls – A national coalition of women and girls connecting their criminal justice transformation work and sharing their expertise as directly affected individuals to create meaningful change in public opinion and policy making (#FreeHer).
  • Educators for Justice – White leaders committed to dismantling systems of oppression in schools through reading groups, convenings, personal empowerment, and collective action.
  • Antiracist White Educators Group – Affinity group for white educators seeking a safe space to examine and discuss race and whiteness; to critically reflect on their racial identities, understandings and actions around race; and to support each other in confronting and working to undo racism in our schools, in our lives and the larger world.
  • NAACP School to Prison Pipeline – NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) partners with community organizations to work on groundbreaking programs and advocacy efforts aimed at returning the emphasis to education instead of exclusion and incarceration.
  • ACLU Racial Justice Program – ACLU’s education work centers on disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline through strategic litigation and advocacy campaigns.
  • The National Coalition on School Diversity – Network of national civil rights organizations, university-based research centers, and state and local coalitions working to increase support for government initiatives that promote diversity in schools.

This Brief was developed by USRESIST NEWS Analyst Tina Lee. Contact:

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