Letter to Secretary DeVos: Preserve the School Discipline Guidance

View a PDF of this letter here.

Dear Secretary DeVos,

On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States, and the 153 undersigned organizations, we write to express our support for the January 8, 2014 joint school discipline guidance package including the “Joint Dear Colleague on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline” and to oppose any changes or rescission. The 2014 guidance clarifies that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) expects that schools and districts are treating all children fairly and provides practical tools and guidelines for educators to create safe, supportive, and welcoming environments for all students. Rescinding the guidance would send the opposite message: that the Department does not care that schools are discriminating against children of color by disproportionately kicking them out of school and that the Department does not see itself as having a role in helping educators create and maintain safe schools that afford all students equal educational opportunities.

ED is a civil rights agency and, together with the Department of Justice (DOJ), is responsible for protecting students from discrimination on the bases of race, color, national origin; sex; disability; and age.[i] Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, the Department of Education is tasked with enforcing these laws in response to complaints of discrimination and through proactive compliance reviews, data collection, and technical assistance.[ii] All of the laws that ED and DOJ are responsible for require regulations, policy guidance, oversight, and enforcement in order to provide their intended benefits to students. We reject any effort to undermine, through the rescission or modification of the regulations and guidance used to inform all parties of their rights and obligations under the law, the protections and supports these laws provide. We also oppose any effort to limit the resources and practical tools to help recipients of federal funding proactively comply with the law.

Suspensions and expulsions, which are practices that remove a child from school temporarily or permanently[iii] in response to alleged misbehavior, are used too often in our schools and disproportionately against children of color, children with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth.[iv] Researchers estimate that suspensions, most of which are for minor behaviors, result in tens of millions of days of lost instruction.[v] For more than 40 years,[vi] this problem has been documented and described by researchers[vii], ED, children[viii], educators, and community advocates. Students, parents, educators, and civil rights advocates asked ED and DOJ for years to get involved to address the overuse and discriminatory use of suspension and expulsion. The disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline could not be explained by differences in child behavior and so it was clear that action was needed to change the policies and practices of adults throughout the educational system.[ix] The guidance documents were created to assist states, districts, and schools in developing practices and policies to enhance school climate and comply with federal civil rights laws. However, recently, consistent with other attacks on civil rights and communities of color, there have been public calls by opponents of school discipline reform to rescind this guidance and undermine the protections it describes.[x]

When children are pushed out of school, they lose instructional time and are more likely to become involved with the juvenile and adult justice systems.[xi] Disproportionate suspension rates mean children of color lose more instructional time than their White peers.[xii] Multiple studies have shown other negative effects on suspended children[xiii] as well as harm to children when their peers are suspended.[xiv] All children are harmed when schools overuse punitive exclusionary discipline.[xv] As the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “out-of-school suspension and expulsion represent an enormously costly and largely unsatisfactory solution to behavior problems in school, whether from the standpoint of the school district, the student, or the community.”[xvi] These harms to children come with no benefit to school safety or student learning.[xvii]

The 2014 guidance documents provide important information and support for educators who want to create safer and more welcoming schools and important cautions for schools where problems are not being addressed and children continue to be treated unfairly. The guidance documents themselves, however, must be combined with additional supports to ensure schools are safe and fair for their students. Schools and their teachers need sufficient support and resources, and sufficient enforcement action needs to be taken, including by ED, to ensure that the promise of the guidance documents and our civil rights laws really result in improved educational opportunity for children.

However, just as the guidance did not create or change law, rescinding the guidance would not affect the statutes and regulations that the guidance interprets. Schools would still be prohibited from discriminating against students and ED would still be obligated to enforce civil rights law. Thankfully, the materials and resources provided in the guidance package are now widely available and shared by educators who are leading the way to create more equitable school climates. At such a tenuous time, when progress on school discipline has been too slow and too limited, rollback of this much needed guidance would hamper progress and undermine children’s pursuit of their education. And when the nation is focused on the importance of building safe and inclusive school environments, rescinding the guidance would send exactly the wrong message.

Every child deserves and should be included in a warm, welcoming and responsive school that provides them the education they need to be ready for college, career, and life. Suspension and expulsion, especially when used in a discriminatory manner, undermine that goal and deny children the education they need. The federal government’s role in ensuring schools are free from discrimination has been articulated and confirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and by ED in regulations and guidance – including the 2014 school discipline guidance – implementing that law. It is incumbent upon ED, children, families, educators, advocates, researchers, and policymakers to ensure that progress continues, equal educational opportunity is real, and those who would seek to turn back the clock and undermine progress are stopped. The urgency is real, and the responsibility is great.

Students deserve, and the law requires, a Department of Education that is working to protect all students from discrimination and to provide an excellent education for all students. These regulations and guidance documents, and continued enforcement of the law, are critical to making students’ rights real. If you have any questions, please contact Leadership Conference Director of Education Policy Liz King at [email protected] or 202.466.0087.


National (64)

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights


African American Ministers In Action

Alliance for Educational Justice

American Association of University Women

American Federation of Teachers

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

Anti-Defamation League

Augustus F. Hawkins Foundation

Autism Society

Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Center for Law and Education

Center for Public Representation

Children’s Defense Fund

Clearinghouse on Women’s Issues

Committee for Children

Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates

Democrats for Education Reform

Dignity in Schools Campaign

Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund

Educators for Excellence


Equal Justice Society

Feminist Majority Foundation

Girls Inc.


Human Rights Campaign

Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

Juvenile Law Center

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

League of Women Voters of the United States

Learning Policy Institute


NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE)

National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities

National Bar Association

National Black Justice Coalition

National Center for Learning Disabilities

National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools

National Center for Transgender Equality

National Center for Youth Law

National Council of Jewish Women

National Disability Rights Network

National Down Syndrome Congress

National Education Association

National Partnership for Women & Families

National Urban League

National Women’s Law Center

People For the American Way

PFLAG National

Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law

Southeast Asia Resource Action Center

Southern Poverty Law Center

SPAN Parent Advocacy Network

Stop Sexual Assault in Schools

Students for Education Reform


Teach Plus

The Advocacy Institute

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools

The Arc of the United States

The Education Trust

The Expectations Project

The Opportunity Institute


Transformative Justice Coalition

UnidosUS, formerly NCLR

Union for Reform Judaism



State/Local (82)

ACLU Foundation of Southern California

Advocates for Children of New York

Arizona Center for Disability Law

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families

Bucks County Down Syndrome Interest Group

California Down Syndrome Advocacy Coalition

Center for Pan Asian Community Services, Inc.

Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights

Children Now

Children’s Defense Fund – California

Children’s Defense Fund – New York

Children’s Defense Fund – Ohio

Children’s Defense Fund – Southern Regional Office

Children’s Defense Fund – Texas

Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana

Children’s Rights Clinic, Southwestern Law School


Coalition of Black Leaders in Education

Colorado Children’s Campaign

Democrats for Education Reform – Colorado

Democrats for Education Reform – DC

Democrats for Education Reform – Massachusetts

Disability Law Center

Disability Law Center of Alaska

disAbility Law Center of Virginia

Disability Law Colorado

Disability Law Project of Vermont Legal Aid, Inc.

Disability Rights California

Disability Rights Florida

Disability Rights Iowa

Disability Rights of West Virginia

Disability Rights Oregon

Disability Rights Tennessee

Disability Rights Texas

Disability Rights Vermont

Disability Rights Wisconsin

Down Syndrome Connection of the Bay Area

Education Justice Alliance

Education Law Center – PA

Education Reform Now – Washington State

El Sol Science and Arts Academy

Excellence Unleashed

Fathers & Families of San Joaquin

Georgia Disabled Veterans Business Enterprise

Girls Inc of the Washington, DC  Metropolitan Area

Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline (Gwinnett SToPP)

Legal Aid Justice Center

Legal Services for Children

Metro St. Louis Coalition for Inclusion and Equity (M-SLICE)

Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service, Inc. (MPAS)

Native American Disability Law Center

Native Hawaiian Education Council

Nollie Jenkins Family Center

North Carolina Justice Center

North Dakota Protection & Advocacy Project

North Montgomery Communities United for Prosperity

Northern California Students for Education Reform

Oklahoma Disability Law Center, Inc

Parent Advocate Group for an Equitable, Quality Education (PAGE QE)

Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center

Parent Support Arizona

Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc.

Public Counsel

Public Interest Law Center

Quality Education for Every Student


Restorative Schools Vision Project (RSVP)

Student Advocacy, Inc.

Students For Education Reform Boston

Students for Education Reform Denver

Students For Education Reform Minnesota

Students for Education Reform North Carolina

Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition

The Education Trust-Midwest

The Education Trust-West

The Education Trust–New York

The South Carolina Education Association

Thursday Network


Vermont Family Network

West Hills College

Western CT Association for Human Rights, WeCAHR

Women’s Law Project

Wyoming Children’s Law Center, Inc.

[i] 20 U.S.C. Ch. 48

[ii] U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.  “About OCR.” Last modified: 10/15/2015. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/aboutocr.html

[iii] NOTE: This may include referral to alternative schools or settings, homebound placements, and informal short term removals.

[iv] See examples including: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.  “2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look.” October 28, 2016. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/2013-14-first-look.pdf, and Himmelstein, K. E. W., & Brückner, H. “Criminal-Justice and School Sanctions Against Nonheterosexual Youth: A National Longitudinal Study.”  Pediatrics. January 2011. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/1/49.

[v] Losen, D., Hodson, C., Keith II, M. A., Morrison, K., & Shakti, B. “Are We Closing The School Discipline Gap.” The Center for Civil Rights Remedies. February 2015.


[vi] Edelman, M. W., Beck, R., Smith P.V., Barron, M., Brown, D., Thomas. C., . . . Mizell, H. “School Suspensions-Are They Helping Children.” Children’s Defense Fund. September 1975.


[vii] See examples including: Fabelo, T., Thompson M. D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks III. M. P., Booth, E. A. “Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success ad Juvenile Justice Involvement.” Council of State Governments Justice Center & The Public Policy Research Institute, Texas A&M University. July 19, 2011.


Balfanz. R., Brynes, V., Fox, J. “Sent Home and Put Off-Track: The Antecedents, Disproportionalities, and Consequences of Being Suspended in the Ninth Grade.” Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk. 2014.


Losen, Daniel J. and Gillespie, Jonathan. “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School.” The Center for Civil Rights Remedies. August 2012. https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/resources/projects/center-for-civil-rights-remedies/school-to-prison-folder/federal-reports/upcoming-ccrr-research/losen-gillespie-opportunity-suspended-2012.pdf

[viii] Ending the School to Prison Pipeline: Hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary, Senate, 112th Cong. (2012). https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-112shrg86166/pdf/CHRG-112shrg86166.pdf

[ix] Rausch. K. M., Williams N. T. “Supplementary Paper I: Are Black Kids Worse? Myths and Facts About Racial Differences in Behavior.” The Equity Project at Indiana University. March 2014. http://www.indiana.edu/~atlantic/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/African-American-Differential-Behavior_031214.pdf.

[x] Riley, Jason L. “Another Obama Policy Betsy DeVos Should Throw Out.” The Wall Street Journal. September 27, 2017

https://www.wsj.com/articles/another-obama-policy-betsy-devos-should-throw-out-1505256976, “School Disicpline Isn’t Washington’s Business.” Bloomberg. February 6, 2018. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-02-06/school-discipline-isn-t-washington-s-business, Clegg, Roger. “Withdraw the Bad Guidance.” National Review. January 23, 2018


[xi] Palmer, Neal A., Greytak E. A, Kosciw J. G. “Educational Exclusion Drop Out, Push Out, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline among LGBTQ Youth.” Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. 2016.


[xii] Losen, D. J., Whitaker, A. “Lost Instruction: The Disparate Impact of the School Discipline Gap in California.” The Civil Rights Project. October 24, 2017.


[xiii] The Council Of State Governments & Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University “Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement.” July 2011.


[xiv] Perry, B. L., Morris E. W. “Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Public Schools.” American Sociological Review. November 5, 2014.


[xv] Id.

[xvi] American Academy of Pediatrics. “Out-of-School Suspension and Expulsion.” 2013.


[xvii] Fenning, P. A., Pulaski, S., Gomez, M., Morello, M., Maciel, L., Maroney, E, Schmidt, A., Maltese, R. “Call to Action: A Critical Need for Designing Alternatives to Suspension and Expulsion.” ERIC. 2012.


American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. “Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations.” American Psychologist. December 2008.


Rausch. K. M., Skiba R. J. “The Academic Cost of Discipline: The Relationship Between Suspension/Expulsion and School Achievement.” Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Indiana University. April, 2005.


Hinze-Pifer, Rebecca and Sartain, Lauren. “Rethinking Universal Suspension for Severe Student Behavior.” Peabody Journal of Education. February 2018. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0161956X.2018.1435051?journalCode=hpje20