A MAJOR JUSTIFICATION for a controversial policy action taken by the Trump administration regarding discipline in schools relied on research from an academic considered well outside the mainstream who didn't know his work was being used to bolster the decision.
The issue came to light Tuesday, when Rep. Katherine Clark, a Democrat from Massachusetts, pressed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos about her reasons for revoking Obama-era discipline guidance during a congressional hearing about the president's proposed budget for the Department of Education.
"Black children are just plain old more disruptive in the classroom," Clark mockingly said to DeVos. "How did you come to that conclusion?"
Last year, DeVos rescinded guidance from the previous administration aimed at stemming the school-to-prison pipeline by prodding schools to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color, who receive disciplinary actions at disproportionately high rates.
Among other things, the discipline guidance led to an uptick in school districts embracing what's known as "restorative justice" discipline strategies, in which schools use methods other than suspension and expulsion. But some educators and education-policy researchers argued the guidance did a disservice to schools, creating disruptive classrooms where teachers felt unsafe because they were pressured by school administrators not to report students.
In the wake of last year's school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, DeVos headed a federal school safety commission tasked with making recommendations for how states and school districts could better secure their schools. When the commission released nearly 100 recommendations in December, included among them was a proposal to eliminate the discipline guidance.
A week after the committee made the recommendation, DeVos formally revoked the guidance, igniting a firestorm among civil rights groups that saw it as essential for keeping in check implicit or unconscious racial bias.
To bolster the specific recommendation, DeVos' federal safety commission cited three major reasons: The guidance introduced a federal role in an inherently local issue; the guidance created an environment in which teachers and students felt unsafe; and the guidance incorrectly, and potentially unlawfully, relied on what's known as disparate impact – attributing higher discipline rates among black students to systemic causes within schools.
In making the latter point, DeVos' commission cited several times a study in which researchers argued that the discipline discrepancies between black and white students are "likely produced by pre-existing behavioral problems of youth that are imported into the classroom, that cause classroom disruptions, and that trigger disciplinary measures by teachers and school officials."
"Differences in rates of suspension between racial groups thus appear to be a function of differences in problem behaviors that emerge early in life, that remain relatively stable over time, and that materialize in the classroom," researchers wrote in a 2014 paper that counters the concerns about inequitable discipline that caused the Obama administration that same year to enact its guidance.
"Early misbehavior is tied to later misbehavior and, in turn, that misbehavior is tied to school suspensions," the researchers concluded. "These findings highlight the importance of early problem behaviors and suggest that the use of suspensions by teachers and administrators may not have been as racially biased as some scholars have argued."
The research was published in the Journal of Criminal Justice by John Paul Wright, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati, and four others.
Reached by phone, Wright, who is the lead author of the report, said he was not aware that DeVos used his research to bolster the decision to rescind the discipline guidance.
"Honestly, I had no idea," Wright says. "I've had no contact."
When asked whether he wished DeVos or other White House officials had consulted him prior to citing his research, Wright says, "No, not really."
"It's been my experience, whether it's the state government or federal government, once they make a decision to alter policy, it's rooted in whatever political orientation is dominant at the time," he says. "Scholarly research is typically used to buttress that orientation."
"Some papers, you never know once they're released how they will be utilized," he continues. "From our perspective, we simply did this type of research because we were interested in the question and saw a glaring gap in the research. There was no ulterior political motive."
But that's not what Clark saw. After quoting the study's findings to DeVos during the budget hearing, the congresswoman dug in:
"That's the research that you are citing in your report in concluding that, apparently, that it is not racial discrimination in discipline, but there are some characteristics of black children that, from this report, start early in life – well before they get to the classroom," she said. "And, in fact, the author of the report has many other writings where he says that it is the liberal fantasy that poverty and racism play into high rates of incarceration and criminal behavior."
Wright, who identifies on Twitter as a "stoic, masculine, conservative male who loves free speech" and considers himself an "accidental academic," has written at length about the liberal tilt in criminology, which he characterizes as widespread and overly focused on social justice issues as a solution.
"Themes of injustice, oppression, disparity, marginalization, economic and social justice, racial discrimination, and state-sanctioned violence dominate criminological teaching and scholarship," he wrote in 2017. "When it comes to disciplinary biases, however, none is so strong or as corrupting as liberal views on race."
Wright is credited with reigniting interest in using genetics and biology to explain criminal behavior and has written at length about the pushback he gets for it.
"Those who pursue this line of research get branded as racists or even eugenicists," Wright wrote. "We have personally experienced hostile receptions when presenting our work in these areas at professional conferences and have been excoriated in the anonymous-review process when attempting to publish our papers."
Wright's research is considered legitimate in academic circles. He uses popular, robust federal datasets for much of his work and has been published more than 200 times.
But his research also draws red flags for many who say it ignores implicit bias, which speaks to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect how people act or make decisions unconsciously – the major concern about why students of color are disciplined at disproportionately high rates. Those who focus on school discipline are quick to note that, yes, the experiences students come into school with matter, but what happens in a school matters, too.
"So my question for you is: When you talk about children shall be treated individually, what are you saying?" Clark asked DeVos. "Are you saying here, when you quote this research, that the problem really is that black children are just more of a discipline problem? Because that's the research you have quoted in your report."
"I've said it before and I'll say it again," DeVos responded, "no student, no child should be treated or disciplined differently based on their skin color, race or their national origin."
Clark ended the seven-minute exchange by urging DeVos to repeal the citation of the research in the federal safety commission report.
Wright defended the research DeVos and her commission cited for repealing the discipline guidance, saying that it was an important area of study that hadn't been thoroughly investigated.
"We had read much of the suspension literature and found this sort of glaring oversight that many of the studies had not sufficiently dealt with the prior problem behaviors of kids, which seems to be a necessary ingredient to understand school discipline overall," he says.
"I would never say that black children are, categorically, more of a discipline problem than other students," he says. "That said, any number of studies show that problem behavior, including juvenile delinquency, is not uniformly distributed across racial groups. In general, African-Americans have the highest comparative rates of problem behavior – a fact that shouldn't surprise anyone given many African-American youth remain socially and economically disadvantaged."
Wright noted that school discipline has become politicized, making it difficult to assess competing claims, but that since the Obama administration issued its discipline guidance, there's been an uptick in interest in school discipline research.
"I think there's an effort among scholars to more fully understand the complexities here of behavior and school discipline policies and to recognize that either extreme is probably not the right approach," Wright says.
"Unfortunately, it's still very much politicized," he says. "I think we have to remember that we're dealing with kids in an education environment and broad-based, one-size-fits-all policies can generate some fairly negative consequences when applied broadly across districts."
Original story here.