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

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Attorney General Eric Holder cherry-picked educational statistics from a flawed study during a Feb. 25 speech in which he lambasted school administrators for disciplining students on the basis of race.

“We’ve often seen that students of color, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and students with special needs are disproportionately likely to be suspended or expelled,” Holder said in Atlanta, Ga.

“This is, quite simply, unacceptable. … These unnecessary and destructive policies must be changed,” Holder said at the meeting, which was hosted by 100 Black Men of Atlanta Inc.

Holder attributed his claim of racial disparity in school discipline to a 2011 study that he said showed “83 percent of African American male students and 74 percent of Hispanic male students ended up in trouble and suspended for some period of time.”

However, Holder’s speech ignored the report’s conclusion that 59 percent of white males are also disciplined. He ignored other data suggesting that the different discipline rates roughly align with actual schoolyard behavior.

“Look at the demographics around that school and see if the same percentages are logged in the police reports [because] if the police are singing the same song, that issue [of disparate treatment] will not stand up,” said David Rettig, head of the National Character Education Foundation.

“Outside the walls of the school, how many of these kids are coming from not just dysfunctional homes, but homes that are not supportive of their children?” he asked.

The 2011 study Holder cited analyzed discipline in Texas schools. It was completed by the Council of State Governments’ justice center and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University. It concluded that “students who were suspended and/or expelled, particularly those who were repeatedly disciplined, were more likely to be held back a grade or to drop out than were students not involved in the disciplinary system.”

Holder’s speech reflects a growing demand by government-funded professionals for federal government intervention to ensure that school officials discipline students in each racial or ethnic group at roughly the same rates, without regard to classroom behavior. This campaign has generated funding for many studies, as well as a stream of supportive articles in outlets such as The Washington Post.

But claims of racial imbalance in school discipline, from both Holder and the Texas 2011 report, ignored relevant data on behavior outside the school walls.

For example, a 2000 report on the Texas legal system showed that African-Americans are seven times as likely as whites to be incarcerated. The report, titled “Texas Tough,” was published by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, based in Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

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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