U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (screengrab)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chris Murphy on Wednesday said he fears the Trump administration may take “a giant step backwards” when it comes to addressing school discipline policies that fall heaviest on minorities and disabled students.

In a keynote address at the Center for American Progress, Murphy said that he is concerned Education Secretary Betsy Devos is considering rescinding a 2014 guidance from the Obama administration that pushed school officials to encourage discipline policies that are not discriminatory.

“The guidance really just gives states tools to end the school-to-prison pipeline and make clear that policies that result in minority kids or disabled kids getting suspended or expelled at dramatically higher rates than white students or non-disabled students could violate civil rights laws even if the policy itself doesn’t appear to be discriminatory on its face,” he said during a keynote address to the Center for American Progress.

Murphy says the guidance is needed to “make amends” for an unintended consequence of the No Child Left Behind law, which focused school success largely on the outcomes of standardized tests.The policy, he said, encouraged schools to use suspension and expulsion policies to remove difficult-to-teach students from their system.

“Black students were getting suspended and expelled at a rate that was not twice as high as white students—it was three times as high as white students. Disabled kids were getting out of school suspensions at a rate that was twice that of non-disabled students,” he said. “And the suspensions and expulsions that were happening all across the country they weren’t making schools any safer.”

Murphy noted that Connecticut found that many of the suspensions and expulsions were over “relatively benign violations” of school policy such as talking back to a teacher or skipping class.

The Trump administration has not yet rescinded the discipline guidance but appears to be considering such an action. In November, the U.S. Department of Education hosted a meeting with educators concerned that the guidance would have a chilling effect on disciplining students that pose a safety threat to educators and fellow students.

Separately, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Max Eden, argued in National Review in November that the Obama-era school discipline policy was based on a false assumption that “racial disparities in school suspensions must be evidence that teachers are (at least implicitly) racist.”

Murphy contends that there is no legitimate excuse for black or disabled students to be suspended or expelled at grossly disproportionate rates from other students. He also argues that too many students are losing their right to an education for unjustifiable reasons. Rather than punish for misbehavior, he says schools should offer incentives that encourage good behavior.

“Absolutely, there are going to be behaviors that need discipline. But, if you invest in models rewarding students who meet expectations you will find you don’t need discipline as much,” he said.

Watch Murphy’s address.

Murphy is up for re-election this year. Republicans Dominic Rapini and Matt Corey are seeking the Republican nomination to challenge him.

School discipline is not one of the issues that has become a talking point during the campaign.