Trump Administration Rescinds Key Federal Guidance for Students with Disabilities
The U.S. Department of Education has eliminated a critical resource that works to secure and standardize the rights of students with ADHD and learning disabilities. Disability advocates fear negative implications for students with special needs now that the “Dear Colleague” letter is gone.
January 17, 2019
The U.S. departments of Justice and Education have rescinded the 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter, a civil rights protection that provides guidelines for fair discipline policies for all public-school students — explicitly minority students and students with disabilities. The change has sparked an outcry from special-education and civil-rights advocates.
Last October, the Department of Education (DOE) revoked 72 policies designed to protect the welfare of students with disabilities following an executive order from President Trump that directed all federal entities to name regulations for modification or repeal. Last week, the DOE revoked the “Dear Colleague” letter and 69 other guidance documents it deemed “unnecessary, outdated, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper.”1
This latest change follows the release last month of a school safety report signed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, among others. Commissioned after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that killed 17 students and staff, the report says, “Policy guidance issued under the Obama Administration placed an emphasis on tracking school disciplinary actions by race. That guidance, set forth largely in a Dear Colleague Letter and other sub-regulatory documents (hereinafter collectively “Guidance”), suggests that even facially neutral school discipline policies may violate federal law if they have a ‘disparate impact’ upon members of certain racial groups in rates of suspension, expulsion, or referral to law enforcement.2 The Guidance further communicates that such outcomes could give rise to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education, putting a school at risk of losing federal funds.”
Stoneman Douglas shooter Nikolas Cruz was white. The DOE report recommends no changes to national firearm laws.
The 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter (DCL) was established to address widespread disparities in student discipline — namely suspension and expulsion rates — based on race, ethnicity, and learning differences. The DCL reminded educators that federal law prohibits discriminatory discipline based on race or disability, described the enforcement authority of the DOE, and recommended best practices for fair and effective student discipline.
Denise Marshall, Executive Director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, told Disability Scoop that Secretary DeVos is sending a clear message to children of color and children with disabilities “that they are not valuable and that the negative, disparate experiences they face at school do not matter.”3
Revoking the guidance does not change the underlying anti-discriminatory law, but Marshall worries it will foster discriminatory practices that will impact the affected students.
In a statement released December 21, 2018, Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said: “This decision is further proof that our children cannot count on the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos or the Department of Justice to protect their rights. Rescinding this important school discipline guidance signals that the federal government does not care that too many schools have policies and practices that push children of color out of school. Federal nondiscrimination laws have not changed. Any school with discipline policies or practices that discriminate against children based on race, ethnicity, sex, or disability is still breaking the law. We urge educators and schools to implement evidence-based strategies that will create the safe, welcoming schools all of our children deserve.”
1 Michelle Diament. “Trump Administration Rescinds Guidance Amid Objections From Disability Advocates.” Disabilityscoop, January 7 (2019). https://www.disabilityscoop.com/2019/01/07/trump-rescinds-guidance-advocates/25841/
2 Betsy DeVos, Kirstjen M. Nielsen, Alex M. Azar II, Matthew Whitaker. “Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety.” December 18 (2018). https://www2.ed.gov/documents/school-safety/school-safety-report.pdf
3 Michelle Diament. “Trump Administration Rescinds Guidance Amid Objections From Disability Advocates.” Disabilityscoop, January 7 (2019). https://www.disabilityscoop.com/2019/01/07/trump-rescinds-guidance-advocates/25841/