Editorial Board

School Discipline Isn't Washington's Business

Let teachers, not bureaucrats, decide how to maintain order.

Peacekeeper.

Photograph: Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

When students misbehave in the classroom -- and, so long as the prefrontal cortex continues to be the last part of the human brain to develop, they will -- they should have to answer to their teachers. The federal government need not get involved.

Yet federal policies currently discourage schools from suspending chronically disruptive kids, harming the vast majority of students who actually want to learn. In 2014, the federal government warned school districts that they could be investigated for civil rights violations if their disciplinary policies were found to have a disparate impact on students based on race.

It's true that black students are suspended at nearly four times the rate as white students, and that African-American students are more likely to receive heavier punishments for the same offenses. By the time they're adults, those who were suspended at some point during their K-12 years have lower college graduation rates and are more likely to have been arrested than their non-suspended peers.

So curbing excessive punishments for low-level, first-time offenses makes sense, and in fact the number of students suspended from school has fallen by 20 percent since 2011, according to the most recent federal figures. But there's evidence that when schools relax standards too much for troublesome students, everyone else pays the price. In school districts that have banned or strictly limited the use of suspensions, the achievement of non-suspended students declined -- while fighting and drug use rose.

The sharpest critics of discipline-reform efforts are public-school teachers themselves, who say the more lenient rules force them to tolerate misbehavior that endangers classroom safety.

It's hard enough for teachers to comply with demands from local administrators and state legislators to ease up on truculent students. Over the last decade, at least 27 states have passed laws ordering schools to limit their use of out-of-school suspensions, particularly for nonviolent offenses such as cursing, lying or stealing.

Even worse is when school decisions are scrutinized by federal bureaucrats. As one might expect, the process is far from efficient: Investigations into several cities' disciplinary practices have dragged on for years.

The current policy represents a classic case of Washington overreach -- which is why Education Secretary Betsy DeVos should rescind the 2014 rules, while reiterating that individual claims of discrimination will still be investigated under civil-rights laws. At the same time, the federal government should devote more resources to training teachers and administrators in measures that hold students accountable for disruptive behavior without removing them from school.

The responsibility of the federal government is to ensure that students are treated fairly and without discrimination. Student discipline should be handled at the local level -- and as much as possible, left to the discretion of individual principals and teachers.

    --Editors: Romesh Ratnesar, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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