Betsy DeVos wants more character development in schools. That’s a big problem.

Buckle up, kids.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

You’ve read the stories.

An eighth grader was locked up for throwing skittles on a schoolbus. A 6-year-old girl was handcuffed for taking candy from a teacher’s desk. An officer slammed and dragged a high school girl, because she wouldn’t put her phone down. A Texas cop choked a 14-year-old boy over a shoving match in school. A middle school student was suspended and charged for allegedly stealing a carton of milk from a cafeteria — even though he didn’t do it.

Across the country, teachers rely on law enforcement and draconian punishments to correct students’ behavior in the classroom. In the Era of Trump, extreme discipline is poised to get worse.

During an interview with Townhall columnist Cal Thomas in February, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said that character development and values are lacking in schools, which contributes to poor achievement. But education advocates and legal experts say poor achievement stems from racist and punitive policies disguised as character development, and worry about the future of the school-to-prison pipeline under DeVos’ leadership.

The pipeline is the result of treating students like criminals in schools —often for non-criminal behavior. Institutions with zero-tolerance disciplinary policies suspend and expel students — or have cops make arrests — for minor infractions, such as wearing the wrong uniform, truancy, disobeying teachers’ instructions, or getting into schoolyard fights.


Forced out of the classroom, kids are more likely to fall behind in coursework, drop out of school, and commit future offenses that land them in the criminal justice system. They also miss out on social and emotional learning that leads to maturation, self-control, and positive habits.

The discipline-centric approach “mirrors that broken windows policy that’s also discredited in law enforcement — that you attack the small things to prevent somebody from becoming a larger-scale criminal,” Karen Dolan, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, told ThinkProgress. And just as biased police disproportionately target people of color on the streets, biased educators determine which students are in need of correcting.

Based on national data, researchers have been able to create a general profile of the students most impacted by the pipeline. Black kids are most likely to be disciplined because of zero-tolerance policies — a trend that begins in preschool. Students who have disabilities are suspended two times more than those who do not, and account for one-fourth of students “arrested and referred to law enforcement,” per data from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

LGBTQ youth are disproportionately sanctioned as well. Many are penalized because of harassment or assault by their peers, or punished for their sexual orientation and gender expression. According to GLSEN, 15.1 percent of the LGBTQ students it surveyed had been suspended. Forty percent experienced some form of discipline, including suspension, detention, or expulsion.

The federal government was slowly chipping away at the pipeline under the Obama administration. Notably, the DOE and DOJ released nonbinding guidelines to clarify that “school personnel” are primarily responsible for standard discipline and should not rely on police, also known was School Resource Officers (SROs); called on public schools to end corporal punishment; and issued guidance to create behavioral supports for students with disabilities.


But during her confirmation hearing, DeVos said she would change course and “defer to the judgment of state and local officials” on the subject of biased discipline in school. “I do not think the nation’s governors want me to come to their states and tell them what to do,” she said.

As Secretary of Education, DeVos has been quiet about the school-to-prison pipeline. But her comments about character development and her general desire to privatize public schools are setting off alarm bells. Advocates fear that biased discipline will become even more harsh in schools and further jeopardize marginalized students.

“The language around values and character development isn’t necessarily negative in and of itself,” Policy Associate Kimberly Quick of the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, told ThinkProgress. “But the problem is it could invite further bias against minority students and students with disabilities.”

A Round Rock, TX, police officer grabs a 14-year-old student by the throat. CREDIT: KXAN-TV
A Round Rock, TX, police officer grabs a 14-year-old student by the throat. CREDIT: KXAN-TV

‘A failing of character’

DeVos’ push to enroll more students in public and private charter schools— which have freer rein to discipline students and less oversight than public institutions— is especially disconcerting to education policy experts. Those are the very types of schools that purport to be arbiters of character and values, Dolan said.

“Many Christian schools, private [schools], and charter schools bill themselves as a place for wayward teens,” she said. Such schools employ a “regimented, militarized” style of discipline and “take the same approach that many conservatives take with regard to poverty or any type of stereotyping of historically marginalized communities, where they say it’s a failing of character.”


Character development is part and parcel of the “no excuses” model embraced by charter school networks nationwide, which prioritizes a culture of uniformity and obedience. For instance, the Knowledge is Power Program, which has 200 member schools across the country, developed seven pillars of character that students must demonstrate: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. STRIVE Preparatory Schools also emphasize “values” in the classroom, including scholarship, teamwork, respect, intelligence, virtue, and effort. To achieve these qualities, students must follow rigid behavioral norms outlined in school rulebooks.

Children and teenagers have been penalized for wearing the wrong shoes, closing their eyes, and leaning against walls. Demerits are handed out for taking notes at the wrong time and slouching. Any sign of “defiance” can get a student kicked out of class. Kids are disciplined for talking in the hallway, fiddling with their hair, or displaying “moral turpitude.” Teachers who fail to uphold strict standards in the classroom are monitored and, sometimes, demoted.

These expectations are also underscored by a troubling dynamic: the students whose behavior instructors are policing are disproportionately Black.

“Students of color are often penalized under things like ‘values,’ for being ‘aggressive’ or ‘noncompliant,’ whereas white students presenting the same behaviors would be called ‘inquisitive’ or ‘independent,’” said Quick. “It’s concerning to hear that language, from a school discipline standpoint.”

As private institutions, charter schools have the authority to create their own policies without outside oversight. Nevertheless, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA collected data that paints a bleak picture: it found that charters suspend Black and disabled students at a higher rate than public schools. Black charter school students are also four times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts, and disabled students are between two and three times more likely to be suspended than students with no disability.

Although she’s been silent on the school-to-prison pipeline, DeVos’ enthusiastic praise of charter schools could usher in a new wave of institutions that embrace racially-biased and severe behavior-correcting measures.

“It rings hollow to me, to have somebody say these children aren’t being given the best opportunities because their value system is being ignored,” Dolan said of DeVos. “The very opposite is true: It’s under attack. Their character is presumed to be bad, and they are attacked for that and pushed out of schools.”

CREDIT: iStock
CREDIT: iStock

Proving civil rights violations

Chief among policy experts’ concerns is that a lack of accountability in charter schools will spill into public ones.

The DOE’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) currently requires that public schools and charter schools that receive federal funding collect and report data on the use of school discipline. According to the ACLU, the DOE’s Civil Rights Data Collection tool “reveals school climate disparities related to discipline, restraint and seclusion, retention, and bullying” and accounts for “race/ethnicity, sex, limited English proficiency, and for students with disabilities and students without disabilities.”

Advocates fear that the requirement will be thrown out of the window. During the confirmation process, DeVos wouldn’t confirm that she’d enforce the data collection.

“If that data is not made available, we can’t tell where the problems are happening. It gives people and schools that are engaging in discriminatory practice cover,” Quick said. “You can’t prove it’s systemic.”

Also unnerving is DeVos’ lack of knowledge about discrimination in schools and her position on the current status of civil rights.

During her confirmation hearing in January, DeVos didn’t seem to know that the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a longstanding federal civil rights law that requires schools to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities. When Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked her if all K-12 schools that receive federal dollars should meet the requirements of IDEA, DeVos answered that “it’s best left to the states.” Following up on Kaine’s question, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) asked DeVos if she knew that IDEA is a federal law. DeVos responded, “I may have confused it.”

Then, during an interview in February, DeVos said that she “can’t think of any” civil rights issues in schools that should be addressed at the federal level. Days later, she showed how serious she was by rolling back Title IX protections for transgender youth.

“DeVos has not — so far — shown a great amount of knowledge around these issues and she hasn’t commented on tough issues like racial discrimination very much,” Quick said.

Candice Jackson, who DeVos tapped to lead OCR last week, doesn’t have an extensive background in civil rights law, ProPublica reported. During her undergraduate years at Stanford University, she also published a story about being discriminated against as a white person.

“The DOE worked very closely with the Office of Civil Rights to tackle nondiscrimination under the Obama administration,” Dolan said. “The DOJ and DOE worked hand-in-hand to look and see — and take seriously — the racial discrimination that exists in schools. They weren’t able to fix it, but they did recognize it.”

“I’m not sure that these would be priorities in her administration,” Quick said.

An SRO grabbed a South Carolina high school student and slammed her to the ground in 2015. CREDIT: YouTube
An SRO grabbed a South Carolina high school student and slammed her to the ground in 2015. CREDIT: YouTube

Discipline without aid

Dolan and Quick agree that DeVos’ language surrounding character development is also problematic because it fails to acknowledge the resources students need to thrive.

“[The] fact that she’s talking about character development without talking about support systems to make sure that students can really succeed in these environments is disturbing,” Quick said. For instance, DeVos has yet to discuss the lack of counselors in schools nationwide.

Statistics highlight the degree to which discipline has been militarized over time. There are approximately 17,000 SROs stationed in public schools, and they outnumber counselors in three of the five largest school districts in the country.

Juvenile justice experts and psychologists agree that misbehavior in schools is directly tied to social and emotional trauma outside of the classroom.

“Typically, children who are in need of extra help are coming from difficult circumstances,” Dolan said. “What are the stressors going on in a child’s life, both inside of school and outside of school? Are they hungry? Do they have sufficient housing? Are their family members okay?”

More and more, public school districts are trying to scale back harsh disciplinary tactics and emphasizing therapy to address student trauma. Social and emotional development was also a cornerstone of the DOE’s push to rethink discipline under the Obama administration. In 2014, the department created School Climate Transformation Grants, to better train teachers and “implement evidence-based strategies with multi-tier behavioral frameworks,” in roughly 1,000 schools.

Based on her record of supporting charter schools and the expansion of Christian education, DeVos’ idea of character development will likely look very different in the future.

“If we’re moving away from public schools that are increasingly paying attention to social and emotional development…into unaccountable charter schools and these character-based disciplinary approaches to educating children, we’re going in exactly the wrong direction,” Dolan said.