Government watchdog report finds racial disparities in school discipline practices

(CNN)A new report from the Government Accountability Office released Wednesday found that black students are still disciplined at school disproportionately, compared to their peers.

The report provides the first national analysis of disparities in school discipline since the Obama administration issued guidance in 2014 urging schools to examine their disciplinary practices and move away from those that disproportionately impacted minority students.
GAO's new analysis found that in the 2013-2014 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, black students accounted for 15.5% of all public school students, but represented about 39% of students suspended from school.
The report was released as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was meeting with advocates and educators as her department examines whether to rescind the Obama-era guidance, which critics have argued can end up keeping dangerous children in schools, posing a threat to their fellow students and staff and creating a disruptive learning environment.
    DeVos had already been considering rescinding the guidance, but there has been new pressure after some conservatives questioned whether the guidance allowed Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland, Florida, gunman, to carry out the February massacre that left 17 dead.
    When President Donald Trump announced that DeVos would lead the federal school safety commission, he said that part of the commission's mandate would be to look into the "repeal of the Obama Administration's 'Rethink School Discipline'" policies.
    Supporters of keeping the guidance in place have argued that racial bias in school discipline policies has been well documented.
    The Obama administration's 2014 guidance noted that in 2013, black students were more than three times as likely as their white peers to be expelled or suspended.
    The Education Department did not issue a response to GAO's findings. At a congressional hearing last month, DeVos defended her agency's decision to re-examine the school discipline guidance.
    "The stated goal of the guidance is one that we all embrace and we are committed to reviewing and considering this guidance and taking appropriate steps," she said. "But I have nothing to say at this point about where that is."
    The GAO analysis was requested by Democratic Reps. Jerry Nadler of New York and Bobby Scott of Virginia, who in a joint statement said it was evidence that race plays a significant role in discipline disparities.
    "The analysis shows that students of color suffer harsher discipline for lesser offenses than their white peers and that racial bias is a driver of discipline disparities," Scott said. "This report underscores the need to combat these gross disparities by strengthening, not rescinding, the 2014 Discipline Guidance Package, which recommends specific strategies to reduce the disparities without jeopardizing school safety."
    On Wednesday morning, DeVos met with educators and advocates who support maintaining or strengthening the Obama-era guidance, with plans to meet in the afternoon with opponents who want to roll it back.
    Participants in the morning meeting said DeVos expressed a willingness to hear from both sides at the start of a meeting that lasted nearly a half-hour.
    Fallon Daniels, an assistant principal at Danbury High School in Danbury, Connecticut, who participated in the morning session, told CNN that DeVos said her intention was to create "nurturing and safe schools for students" but that she didn't state a position.
    Daniels supports the Obama policy and said she worried that if it's rescinded, it could create a "punitive culture and climate" in America's schools.
    "We don't believe in isolating our students or marginalizing our students based on mistakes that they make as they grow up and become a part of our society," she said.
    Evan Stone, the co-founder of Educators for Excellence, an education advocacy group that wants the Obama-era guidance kept in place, said that DeVos "said very clearly that she believes there is a problem with racial disparities in school discipline."
    Stone, who attended the morning meeting, said it was "unfortunate" that supporters of the Obama guidance and those who want to see it revoked were not in the same room.
    "I would have loved to have heard the other arguments and to respond to them," he said, adding that he believed he and others who want to keep the guidance "would have engaged in a respectful dialogue, and I hope that's true on the other side."