School Discipline Disparities Require More Attention, Not Less

By Congressman A. Donald McEachin

My mother, a special education teacher, taught me that public schools have a responsibility to lift up all of our children and provide them with the tools to succeed. No exceptions. Every student deserves to receive a great education from great teachers in a supportive environment — regardless of that student’s race, family income, background, special needs, or other traits.

When children have special needs or face unique challenges, our school systems should make special efforts to be even more supportive, responsive, and attentive. The goal is to educate and build students up so they can become productive members of our society and the leaders of tomorrow.

We need to support our hard-working teachers and others who work in our public schools, trying every day to make a difference in children’s lives. That means investing in education. We also need to ensure that every single parent has options, and fully understands those options, if a school system is failing to help that parent’s child.

If a teacher can’t help, there is the principal. If a problem can’t be solved within a particular school, there is the larger school district. And if they are unresponsive, the Department of Education — and especially its Office for Civil Rights — should be there to provide back-up to ensure children are protected.

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As a state legislator — and as a father — I spent years fighting systemic problems and helping parents advocate for children who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks. I have been proud to continue that work in Congress. Earlier this year, I created an education task force that brings parents and advocates together to help our students.

My task force is examining some of the systemic problems here in our congressional district — the struggle for some special needs students to receive services to which they are entitled and the disparate, excessively high rates of out-of-school suspensions for minority students.

We have all read too many articles about six- and seven-year-olds being suspended for minor infractions. Children who are out of school are not learning and have no opportunity to succeed. We need to remove offenders from the classroom so they are not distracting other children, but not just dump them into the streets. And frankly, putting bored, unsupervised teenagers on the street is potentially a recipe for trouble.

We need to reform the system; at the same time, we need to ensure parents have the knowledge they need to exercise the power and rights they already have. My hope is that this task force can work toward both goals.

If we can make education officials more responsive and accountable, that will help ensure better outcomes for the students themselves — to the lasting benefit of our entire community. To that end, we are hosting a “Parent Power: Know Your Rights” event at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Richmond, which will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 12.

If you’re a parent who wants to learn more about how to effectively advocate on your school-aged child’s behalf, I encourage you to attend.

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The federal Department of Education is supposed to be our ally in this kind of work. I have known the Office for Civil Rights, working with local communities, to correct terrible injustices that prevented students from receiving a quality education.

In response to a 2016 complaint by the Legal Aid Justice Center and the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, OCR announced an investigation into the disproportionate rates and severity with which African-American students and students with disabilities are disciplined at Richmond public schools.

That action was constructive, and I welcomed it — but much more needs to be done. Several months ago, I requested a federal investigation into documented disparities in how students are treated at public schools not just in Richmond, but across the 4th Congressional District. I have not received any substantive response.

Indeed, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, OCR looks set to do far less to help students across the country.

Last month, the Department of Education announced that it would be scaling back investigations — retreating from requirements to search for, and shed light on, systemic injustices. Tellingly, the Trump administration’s budget request seeks to eliminate more than 40 positions within the office.

I fear that these changes could lead to greater disparities, decreased opportunities, and worse outcomes for students — in Virginia, and across our country. Together with my colleagues in Congress, I have repeatedly written Secretary DeVos to protest damaging changes at the Department of Education, and to suggest constructive alternatives.

I will continue to fight for responsible, common-sense policies that meet our children’s most basic needs. I will continue to seek redress when children in Virginia are suffering. And I will continue to shine a light on injustice whenever I see it.

A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat, represents Virginia’s 4th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Contact his Richmond office at (804) 486–1840.

Originally published at www.richmond.com 07/22/2017.