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Betsy DeVos's Action on School Discipline Will Hurt LGBTQ Students

Betsy DeVos

LGBTQ groups are condemning a federal commission’s recommendation, now accepted by the White House, to withdraw guidance for U.S. schools on preventing racial discrimination in disciplinary actions — actions that also disproportionately affect LGBTQ students.

The Federal Commission on School Safety, led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, claims the guidance, issued under President Barack Obama, discouraged schools from disciplining violent students, NPR reports. The commission, created by Donald Trump after the February 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., issued its final report Wednesday, and the Trump administration officially revoked the guidance Friday, the Department of Education announced.

The commission concluded, basically, that school violence derives not from easy availability of guns but from lack of discipline. DeVos had said early on that the commission would not focus on gun control, which the Trump administration strongly opposes. The final report included only a single suggestion on gun control, expanding so-called extreme risk protection orders, “which allow household members or police to seek the removal of firearms from a mentally disturbed person,” according to NPR. It did not endorse raising the minimum age for gun purchases, saying research does not show such moves to be effective. It also recommended that schools consider arming staff members, working with local police to train personnel.

The guidance that was rescinded dates from 2014, when the Department of Education issued recommendations on “how to identify, avoid, and remedy” the problem of “discriminatory discipline.” “The guidance promoted alternatives to suspension and expulsion and opened investigations into school districts that had severely racially skewed numbers,” NPR reports.

Suspension and expulsion often cause students to drop out of school, a decision that affects the rest of their lives. Research shows that students of color are more likely to face these punishments, at a rate that is “disproportionate to their actual behavior,” NPR notes. The alternatives adopted by many schools after the guidance came out did reduce racial disparities but did not eliminate them.

However, the student charged with the killings at Douglas, Nikolas Cruz, who is white, had been referred to one of the alternative programs, known as PROMISE, but there is no evidence that he received services from the program. This revelation led to much opposition to PROMISE and similar efforts.

The report criticized the guidance, saying it “sent the unfortunate message that the federal government, rather than teachers and local administrators, best handles school discipline. As a result, fearful of potential investigations, some school districts may have driven their discipline policies and practices more by numbers than by teacher input.” It also, the report contended, “gave schools a perverse incentive to make discipline rates proportional to enrollment figures,” tantamount to imposing racial quotas. It therefore recommended that the guidance be rescinded.

This recommendation is “part of a series of actions by DeVos to reverse Obama-era guidance intended to protect the civil rights of students,” NPR notes, including the withdrawal of guidelines on the equal treatment of transgender students and on sexual assault investigations.

The discipline guidance does not mention LGBTQ students, but these students are more likely to face harsh discipline than their straight, cisgender peers, activists say. “Students of color, particularly black students, disproportionately experience exclusionary discipline practices — including suspensions and expulsions — that take them away from the places they are supposed to learn and develop and, too often, place them on school-to-prison and school-to-sex-trafficking pathways. This problem is compounded for LGBTQ students of color who often are often unfairly targeted by punitive school policies as a result of their intersectional identities,” David J. Johns, National Black Justice Coalition executive director, said in a press release. Withdrawal of the guidance “will only serve to set us back as a nation, ensuring that the majority of the nation’s public school students are locked out of opportunities to develop the skills, credentials, and relationships necessary to succeed in the global 21st-century labor market or ensure our national security,” he added.

"Transgender students are often disciplined more harshly than their peers, sometimes with damaging effects,” Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in the same release. “Such practices drive too many transgender youth from school to jail — especially transgender students of color. The 2014 guidance has helped schools do the right thing for these students and set a standard of acceptance and inclusivity for all students. The Department of Education’s own officials have admitted that withdrawing it is needless and harmful. We would add it is also heartless.” Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, called the recommendation to undo the guidance “yet another dangerous step in this administration’s ongoing efforts to eviscerate critical civil rights protections in our schools.”

“From day one of her tenure, Betsy DeVos has sought to undermine the safety, dignity and civil rights of students of color, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities and survivors of sexual assault,” said a statement issued by David Stacy, the Human Rights Campaign’s director of government affairs. “While the revocation of this guidance would not change federal civil rights laws, this dangerous action would embolden discriminatory practices that push students of color, including LGBTQ students of color, out of the classroom. It is particularly outrageous to utilize a commission tasked with addressing gun violence in schools as a tool to undermine protections for students of color — and HRC will continue to fight alongside civil rights and education advocates to stop this administration’s harmful agenda and protect the civil rights of all students.”

On Friday, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights issued a statement on the news of the guidance's official revocation. “This decision is further proof that our children cannot count on the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos or the Department of Justice to protect their rights," said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO. "Rescinding this important school discipline guidance signals that the federal government does not care that too many schools have policies and practices that push children of color out of school. Federal nondiscrimination laws have not changed. Any school with discipline policies or practices that discriminate against children based on race, ethnicity, sex, or disability is still breaking the law. We urge educators and schools to implement evidence-based strategies that will create the safe, welcoming schools all of our children deserve.”

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