Holder targets school discipline practices: ‘unacceptable,’ ‘destructive’

Also, a 2003 study by the Department of Justice showed that African-American men committed seven times as many crimes as white men.

Rettig deplored Holder’s focus on race. “When you stir up the race issue, whether you’re right or wrong, you probably don’t get a whole lot of people listening.”

School officials don’t look at behavior as a racial issue, Rettig told TheDC. “I’ve always seen the school administrations just targeting the issue, not the person — whether you’re white or black or Hispanic or Asian, if you’re disruptive.”

He said character education could yield greater benefits than continued reliance on post-crime reactions by Justice Department officials and court counselors. In one district where he worked, he recalled, his program reduced suspensions by 55 percent among kids in the third to fifth grades over a three-year period.

Rettig said his character education program has attracted to support of school principals and politicians, both Democrats and Republicans. The most opposition comes from social workers and other professional rivals who compete for available state funds.

In his speech, however, Holder argued against trusting principals’ professional judgement. After citing the Texas study, Holder added that “tellingly, 97 percent of all suspensions were discretionary and reflected the administrator’s discipline philosophy as much as the student’s behavior.”

Holder did not provide useful evidence to support his insinuation of Texas principals’ racist decision making. He also did not explain how schools could be better managed by the distant office of civil regulation in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Yet even as he criticized principals’ use of the limited authority given to them by state and local governments, Holder also argued that their authority should not be curbed by “zero-tolerance policies.”

Those behavioral policies were created by state governments during the Justice Department’s clampdown on weapons in schools during the 1990s.

“Knowledge can — and must — empower us to do better … [but] in too many places, our children continue to be deprived of educational opportunities as a form of punishment — often for minor infractions or for violations of ineffective, and widely criticized, zero-tolerance policies,” Holder said at the Atlanta meeting.

The attorney general’s inconsistent criticism of zero-tolerance school discipline policies, however, also creates a regulatory disparity with his extensive “anti-bullying” efforts that are intended to regulate schoolyard life. That effort is focused on shielding a very small number of gay and Muslim students from rare episodes of violence, harassment, or even criticism.

“This president, this attorney general, this secretary of health and human services, and this secretary of education — this federal government, in short — is going to put every tool in its arsenal to bear on this issue,” Tom Perez, Holder’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, told a coalition of parents, gay advocacy groups and government officials at a government-funded summit held Sept. 23.

“We cannot allow it to be a rite of passage,” Perez said.

But school behavior shouldn’t be viewed as a racial issue, Rettig insisted. “When you talk about the demographics … you can harm your [cause] more than you can help.”

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