Betsy DeVos to Pull Back Civil Rights Protections for Black Students Under the Guise of 'Safety'

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Betsy DeVos continues her methodical dismantling of civil rights protections for vulnerable students, this time setting her sights on Obama-era guidelines put in place to protect black students from being disproportionately disciplined at school.

As the Washington Post reports, a school safety commission formed shortly after February’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., is expected to recommend canceling the guidelines, which offer schools advice and resources to help them avoid racial disparities in their disciplinary practices.

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To add the cherry on top of this regressive-ass layer cake, that commission—chaired by DeVos—will also not recommend any new gun restrictions in school, instead opting to give schools advice on the best way to arm their teachers, should schools choose to do so.

Hard to think of where that could go wrong...

The Obama-era guidelines were meant to dismantle, at least in part, the school-to-prison pipeline, the nationwide phenomenon in which students are punished for offenses as variant as wearing the wrong color hoodie, to getting in fistfights, and are then funneled into the juvenile and criminal justice system. Black children—particularly black boys—are disproportionately affected. As Laura Waters blogs for Education Post, despite making up just 15 percent of all students, black boys represent more than a third of all students who have been suspended once. That rate leaps up to 44 percent of students suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students who are expelled.

And this racial disparity is not because black students commit more infractions than their non-black peers, as the 2014 Obama letter laid out.

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There’s an ever-growing body of research exploring how these suspensions and expulsions impact students’ futures—but among the most troubling findings come from a study from 2014 that showed students were two times more likely to be arrested on months they were suspended than months when they were in school. And again, this isn’t because these are “bad” kids who were already doing criminal shit, and were thus more likely to be arrested anyway. As the Chicago Policy Review notes, the likelihood of being arrested “actually increased the most for those students who had at least one juvenile offense but did not have a significant history of criminal behavior.”

“Instead of deterring first-time juvenile offenders from criminal activity, suspensions seem to increase the likelihood of recidivism,” the article adds (emphasis mine). The write-up further clarified this trend held up even when gender, race, and parental monitoring were factored in.

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As Waters notes for Education Post, the Obama guidance offered advice for schools on determining the necessity of disciplinary decisions, and offered suggestions on alternate—and most importantly, effective—approaches to suspensions and expulsions.

So at this point, you, my smart person, might be wondering—what does any of this have to do with school safety, which was, after all, the point of the commission?

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Apparently, Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz had participated in a deterrent program called the Broward County’s Promise, which was designed as an alternative to arrest for some students. As the Post writes, “the program was considered an early example of the kind of initiative the Obama discipline guidelines encouraged.”

However, the Promise program predated the Obama guidelines, Cruz is white (the policy specifically singles out students of color), and the Post notes that it is still unclear whether Cruz ever attended the program (he was recommended for a 3-day stint).

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That hasn’t stopped critics from blaming programs like Promise—and the Obama guidelines—for allowing bad behavior to slide, “setting the stage for violent acts,” writes the Post.

Which leaves us here: with DeVos and the Trump administration framing the protection of black kids from overzealous punishment as a safety issue. With DeVos, once again, rolling back protections and resources for our nation’s most vulnerable kids (if you’re keeping score at home, she has already revoked guidance for the protection of trans kids, children with special needs, and sexual assault survivors).

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If it’s been a busy year for the devil, it’s been a busier one for Betsy DeVos.

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About the author

Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?