Portland Public Schools Face Federal Complaint Over Race-Conscious Discipline Policy

AP Photo/Don Ryan, File

Portland Public Schools recently adopted a new race-conscious approach to school discipline. Last week a group filed a civil rights complaint asking the US Department of Education to investigate the new system.


The complaint filed Thursday by advocacy group Parents Defending Education (PDE) argues PPS is only disciplining select students based on "immutable characteristics" through its approaches, including race. The group is asking the U.S. Department of Education to investigate whether the practices are in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Caroline Moore, the vice president of PDE, told Crisis in the Classroom (CITC) Friday the PPS guidelines "make it clear race and gender identity are at the forefront of administrators' minds." She argued the district is setting a "harmful precedent."

"These characteristics will now be the main criteria for deciding severity of discipline for students, even in cases of threats of violence," Moore said. "Moreover, if educators are involved with student discipline disputes, teachers will not be removed from the situation if it would impact the school's educator gender identity quota."

The genesis of this new approach to discipline goes back about a year when there were reports that Portland's discipline equity numbers didn't look good. Specifically, black and Native American students were being disciplined at much higher rates than other ethnic groups.


Students, parents and PPS staff weighed in during the district’s Racial Equity and Social Justice Advisory Committee meeting Thursday night where experts outlined their approach to help address gaps still seen in student equity...

According to the data, Black students are disciplined at a rate of 3.5 times higher than their white counterparts. Native American students are disciplined 2.5 times more and Latinx students are disciplined 1.2 times more than white students...

“Here in Portland, our Black students make up about 8% of our student enrollment. And yet they’re accounting for over 24% of referrals and exclusionary discipline,” said Chandra Cooper, director of multi-tiered systems of support with PPS.

So the Racial Equity and Social Justice Advisory Committee got to work on a new approach which was adopted at the end of last year. The new document made it very clear what the goal was.

The District and Association are committed to a approach for student conduct and discipline that aligns with the PPS Vision and utilizes research based in Racial Equity and Social Justice, Restorative Justice, and Trauma Informed to minimize the use of exclusionary discipline and to maximize instructional time, while repairing harm done within the school community. Student success will not be predicted nor predetermined by national origin, race, culture, ethnicity, sex, language, socio-economic status, mobility, sexual orientation, disability, an /or religion. Student behavior is a communication of unmet needs, and makes sense when put in context. The disciplinary response process should be aimed at meeting these needs and create an environment that helps students find new ways to meet their needs.


In case all of that wasn't clear enough, the document went on to spell it out when it comes to making student discipline plans:

The plan must take into consideration the impact of issues related to the student's trauma, race, gender identity /presentation, sexual orientation, disability, social emotional learning, and restorative justice as appropriate for the student.

The underlying concept here is that disproportionate rates of discipline are proof a failure by the school not by students (or their parents). What's not considered a possibility in this document is that black and Native American students are suspended or referred for discipline more often because they misbehave in class more often. Even if that's true, the solution is more attention to their "trauma" which in plain language means giving students a pass on their behavior because they are black (or gay or trans, etc.).

The practical result of this is going to be a two-tiered system in which black and Native American students get a pass for behavior that white and Asian students could never get away with. That discrepancy will be noticed by students, some of whom will take advantage of it and others of whom will feel resentful about it. The proper response here is to demand the same behavior from all students and to suspend those who fail to meet that single standard regardless of race or sexual orientation. But I can't say I'm confident that the Biden Dept. of Education will reach the same conclusion.


Here's a report from last year on the equity numbers that led to the new system.

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