The Trump administration has formally scrapped an Obama-era policy that was meant to curb racial discrimination in schools but that became tangled in a national debate over school safety.
Officials from the Education and Justice departments finalized the rollback Friday, just days after it was proposed by a federal panel on school safety. President Donald Trump formed the panel in March as the government’s response to the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
In revoking the rule, federal officials said they won’t intervene with schools’ disciplinary decisions as long as they don’t violate federal discrimination laws.
“Our decision to rescind that guidance today makes it clear that discipline is a matter on which classroom teachers and local school leaders deserve and need autonomy,” said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who also led the safety panel. “I would encourage them to continue to implement discipline reforms that they believe will foster improved outcomes for their students.”
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The 2014 policy urged schools not to suspend, expel or report students to police except as a last resort. Instead, it promoted “restorative” discipline measures that don’t remove students from the classroom. President Barack Obama’s administration issued the guidance after finding that black students across the U.S. were more than three times as likely to be disciplined as their white peers.
The policy also warned that schools could face federal investigations if their statistics showed a “disparate impact” for certain races. Schools that disciplined certain races at disproportionate rates, for example, could be found in violation of federal law even if it wasn’t through intentional discrimination.
Critics said the policy overstepped federal authority and left schools afraid to take action against potentially violent students. The question came to the fore in the wake of the Parkland shooting, when some conservatives suggested the guidance might have deterred school officials from telling police about the suspected shooter’s behavioral problems.
In a report that made dozens of recommendations for America’s schools on Tuesday, the safety commission sided with critics, arguing that the policy was well-intentioned but “may have paradoxically contributed to making schools less safe.” The panel proposed a rollback and said education officials would provide information on “best practices” for discipline.
The panel also opposed the notion that schools could be investigated solely because their statistics showed a “disparate impact” in discipline. It said that idea is based on “a dubious reading of federal law.”
A new Education Department document circulated on Friday said that while statistics can be used as circumstantial evidence to prove a motive for discrimination, “the mere existence of disparities does not establish different treatment.”
Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, called the rollback welcome news. He said the policy’s primary victims were students “who want to learn but whose classrooms are disrupted and dangerous because schools are reluctant to discipline students who ought to be.”
But the announcement drew blowback from Democrats and civil rights groups.
Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees education, said that DeVos and Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general, are using “the guise of school safety to rescind guidance aimed at stopping racism.”
“By rescinding this guidance, Secretary DeVos and Acting Attorney General Whitaker are creating confusion for schools and making it harder for students of color to learn without being discriminated against,” Murray said.
Civil rights groups emphasized that the rollback doesn’t change federal anti-discrimination laws. Some said they’re prepared to take legal action against schools that discriminate through their discipline practices.
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