Case Study In Conservative Media Bias: The Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague Letter”


Ethics Alarms devotes a great amount of commentary to the mainstream media’s left-leaning bias—as it should. The major news media sources in the U.S. have become untrustworthy, too often serve as willing tools of government, specifically Democratic Party-controlled government, policy, which is exactly the opposite of the role they are ethically obligated to play. The right-biased news organizations are just as biased but far less numerous or powerful, and have the unique disadvantage of being generally regarded as biased and unreliable because the mainstream media tells us so with great regularity.

Misleading news reporting is still misleading, however, and a recent example is the conservative news media’s characterization of the January letter that went out from the Department of Education and the Justice Department to school districts around the country regarding discriminatory class discipline. The letter (FULL TEXT here) describes various types of common discrimination, but the part of it that the conservative media has focused upon is its discussion of “disparate impact.” The letter says…

Schools also violate Federal law when they even-handedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race. The resulting discriminatory effect is referred to as “disparate impact.”

In determining whether a facially neutral policy has an unlawful disparate impact on the basis of race, the Departments will engage in the following three-part inquiry .

(1) Has the discipline policy resulted in an adverse impact on students of a particular race as compared with students of other races? For example, depending on the facts of a particular case, an adverse impact may include, but is not limited to, instances where students of a particular race, as compared to students of other races, are disproportionately: sanctioned at higher rates; disciplined for specific offenses; subjected to longer sanctions or more severe penalties; removed from the regular school setting to an alternative school setting; or excluded from one or more educational programs or activities. If there were no adverse impact, then, under this inquiry, the Departments would not find sufficient evidence to determine that the school had engaged in discrimination. If there were an adverse impact, then:

(2) Is the discipline policy necessary to meet an important educational goal? In conducting the second step of this inquiry, the Departments will consider both the importance of the goal that the school articulates and the tightness of the fit between the stated goal and the means employed to achieve it. If the policy is not necessary to meet an important educational goal, then the Departments would find that the school had engaged in discrimination. If the policy is necessary to meet an important educational goal, then the Departments would ask:

(3) Are there comparably effective alternative policies or practices that would meet the school’s stated educational goal with less of a burden or adverse impact on the disproportionately affected racial group, or is the school’s justification a pretext for discrimination? If the answer is yes to either question, then the Departments would find that the school had engaged in discrimination. If no, then the Departments would likely not find sufficient evidence to determine that the school had engaged in discrimination….

The Daily Caller’s Robby Soave’s jaundiced interpretation of the long and carefully worded letter under the misleading headline, “Experts slam DOJ letter telling schools to implement race-based punishments,” is typical of how it has been treated by the right-leaning media:

“The letter, released on Wednesday, states that it is a violation of federal law for schools to punish certain races more than others, even if those punishments stem from completely neutral rules. For example, equal numbers of black students and white students should be punished for tardiness, even if black students are more often tardy than white students”

That’s not a fair and honest distillation of the letter, and is not even consistent with the small segment of it that I reproduced above. The does not say or suggest that that “equal numbers of black students and white students should be punished for tardiness, even if black students are more often tardy than white students.” Here is an example given later in the letter to clarify the kind of policy DOE and DOJ would consider unjust and discriminatory using a “disparate impact” rationale:
Example 7
A middle school has a “zero tolerance” tardiness policy. Students who are more than five minutes tardy to class are always referred to the l’s office at a particular school, where they are required to remain for the rest of the class period regardless of their reason for being tardy. The school also imposes an automatic one-day suspension when a student is recorded as being tardy five times in the same semester. Additional tardiness results in longer suspensions and a meeting with a truancy officer.
The evidence shows Asian-American students are disproportionately losing instruction time under the school’s “zero tolerance” tardiness policy as a result of both office referrals and suspensions for repeated tardiness.
An investigation further reveals that white and Hispanic students are more likely to live within walking distance of the school, while Asian-American students are more likely to live farther away and in an area cut off by an interstate highway that prevents them from walking to school. The majority of Asian-American students are thus required to take public transportation. These students take the first public bus traveling in the direction of their school every morning. Even though they arrive at the bus stop in time to take the first bus available in the morning, they often are not dropped off at school until after school has begun.
As justification for the “zero tolerance” tardiness policy, the school articulates the goals of reducing disruption caused by tardiness, encouraging good attendance, and promoting a climate where school rules are respected, all of which the Departments accept as important educational goals. The Departments would then assess the fit between the stated goals and the means employed by the school – including whether the policy is reasonably likely to reduce tardiness for these students under these circumstances. Assuming there was such a fit, the Departments would then probe further to determine the availability of alternatives that would also achieve the important educational goals while reducing the adverse effect on Asian-American students (e.g., aligning class schedules and bus schedules, or excusing students whose tardiness is the result of bus delays). If the Department determines that a school articulated goal can be  met through alternative policies that eliminate or have less of an adverse racial impact, the Departments would find the school in violation of Title VI and require that the school implement those alternatives.
This example does not support the conservative characterization of the letter either. It does not even focus on African-American students. The kind of disparate impact described is due to an unfair refusal to consider how some “no-tolerance” policies are more difficult for some students to meet than others. Nothing in the example, which is the only one of six that addresses disparate impact where there is not also disparate and biased punishment.
The letter does not lack legitimate grounds for criticism. Threatening schools like this can and probably will cause some school administrators to over-react in order to avoid federal scrutiny. There are a lot of inept and incompetent administrators and teachers: ironically, the same education professionals who made the letter necessary are also the ones least likely to understand it. Thus is is possible that some of them will interpret the letter to mandate that the same numbers of blacks and whites be disciplined on particular infractions regardless of the actual racial proportions justifying punishment. That will not be the fault of DOE and DOJ, however, because the letter is clear, or should be to anyone who presumes to teach. It will be the fault of the school administrators, and the conservative journalists whose biased reporting help confuse them.
This episode of biased journalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Conservatives are encouraging the very results they falsely criticize the Obama administration for fostering, by misinforming the professionals who are charged with complying with the letter about what the letter means.
So to recap: because conservative journalists either allow their distrust of the Obama administration to incapacitate their powers of comprehension, or because they are intentionally misrepresenting the administration’s actions to support the narrative that the administration is determined to re-align society so all races achieve equally by quota rather than merit—
  • They have misled the public regarding the Obama policy regarding discrimination in school discipline.
  • They have given credibility to claims by the liberal-baised media that the conservative media cannot be trusted, thus
  • …making it more difficult for the conservative media to fulfill its important function of correcting left-slanted reporting and liberal-biased media distortions.
  • They have made the very result they falsely claim the Obama Administration is seeking more likely rather than less.


Bias makes you stupid, but a biased news media, left or right, makes everyone stupid.

NOTE: Once again, the paragraph spacing isn’t working on this post. I don’t know why this happens every 50 posts or so, and I appear powerless to deal with it, but I apologize for the lay-out.


Sources: Daily Caller, News Day, Education Week, Talking Points Memo, NRO

15 thoughts on “Case Study In Conservative Media Bias: The Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague Letter”

  1. or excusing students whose tardiness is the result of bus delays

    Then it is not a “zero-tolerance” policy…

    Also, I have heard this “policy” before, and frankly the DC’s take isn’t far from what I have heard. It isn’t that more white students would have to be punished, it is that more bad behavior from minority students would have to go unpunished, lest a disparate impact suit be brought.

    And if you think “more black students get punished for [insert infraction here] than white students, therefore the school is racist” isn’t an argument that won’t be made, I envy you your innocence.

    • A triple “Huh?”

      1. Well, yes, the point is that zero-tolerance policies tend to have unfair results, which is undeniably correct. Holder has made similar statements, among the few that I don’t find offensive, dishonest or idiotic.
      2. The point isn’t whether stupid, race-obsessed school districts or schools follow the racist policy, but whether the letter says they should, and it doesn’t.
      3. In fact, I said it was likely to be made, but the argument si moronic, and more important, isn’t supported by the text of the letter.

      There is no denying that a lot of disproportional punishment levels ARE created by bias. A better example is gender. Boys are disproportionately punished for certain kinds of class misconduct, because that’s what boys do. On the other hand, bigoted, biased female teachers are often unfairly hard on boys because their definition of well-behaved is “girls.” I’d love to see a similar “Dear Colleague” letter about that, but it would disrupt the “war against women” narrative.

      • Based on the excerpts you used I read it as the numbers need to be the same based on race, interesting point on gender you made by the way. With the example used implementation of the policy on that basis makes sence, but that analysis should be done on any trend, if the point was, hey if you are seeing trends like this you may want to investigate further I would feel better about it, right now it reads as if there is a disparity in numbers of races punished it goes to automatic review with the focus of finding fault not solutions. I didn’t read the whole document as I am on my phone so maybe that is addressed. I do see how it can be played up though.

        • The whole document needs to be read. Nothing suggests the interpretation the Daily Caller puts on it, except that such a policy would be one which would probably avoid scrutiny and investigations. But the fact that a stupid response to a warning is one possible response to it is not the same as saying the warning requires or even suggests that stupid response.

  2. So in the school bus example it would still be OK for the school to punish the students for being late if the numbers of each race on the school bus were in proportion to the numbers in the school.

  3. Personally, I am in awe and disbelief that the Federal Government even thinks this is a “thing” worthy of their time and attention.* A school–it says so right in the letter–“even-handedly implement[s] facially neutral policies and practices”, but because it inadvertently affects one race more than another, that makes the school racist.

    Even in Example 7, the disproportionate effect is not really on students of a particular race, but–by explicit description–students who live farther away from the school. But if THAT group of students just happens to have a high correlation with students of a particular race . . . GOTCHA!! RACISM!!

    It doesn’t matter why the correlation exists. It doesn’t matter that the ACTUAL discrimination is against students who live farther away and that THIS ALONE should be sufficient reason to examine and reevaluate the policy. Oh, no. It’s okay to discriminate against students who live farther away.

    It’s only when, through some accident of demographics that the school has no say in nor even any reliable way to know about, some particular RACE of student is disproportionately affected that it actually becomes IMPORTANT.

    This kind of stuff makes my blood boil.


    * … also known as “my tax dollars.”

  4. Seems to me that Example 7 loaded the dice with its “zero tolerance* policy.” Since I have zero tolerance for ZTPs, I am curious as to how close this total intolerance is to universal use in U.S. schools. Am I just imagining that it crops up whenever there’s a pistol-shaped cookie and a kid with a crumby mouth on the premises … or something really dangerous to the americanwayoflife like that? Not that I wouldn’t be sympathetic to it if I walked into a theater tomorrow and saw a sign saying: Anyone five minutes or more late to the performance must report to the manager’s office and remain there for the entire program. (Did I say tomorrow? That’s why I stopped reading science fiction after the 70’s — it was all turning out to be Real!) T’aint funny, Magee.

    Seriously, do ZTPs come from state administrations, local school boards, principals, the bible? Who can oppose them? Strike that. Who can suggest in a measured and reasonable tone of text that a reassessment or clarification of purpose or objective evidence of outcome ought to be made? It is clear that there is a negative feedback route going on here — from school to education-policymakers and back again, each time more confused, on a downward spiral of ever-tightening constriction and stupidity.

    ok ranted.
    * … tolerance: acceptance, open-mindedness, broad-mindedness, forbearance, liberality, liberalism; patience, charity, indulgence, understanding oh MY GAWD, that’s IT: someone saw l*b*r*l and thought …. aw, well, yeah… subversive damned word: can’t just cut it out, people will notice, what to do?, got it!! Just redefine it in the latest version of Webmasters New Dictionary as its antonym.

    • Ah yes, the ZTP, the best excuse to be sure that teachers and administrators have even less of a reason to ever exercise logical thought, rationality, or a sense of proportion.

    • Am I just imagining that it crops up whenever there’s a pistol-shaped cookie and a kid with a crumby mouth on the premises

      It just occurred to me.

      who was the genius that actually crafted an explicit rule against pistol-shaped cookies?

    • Always remember: zero tolerance = zero thought.

      Regarding the general article, disparate impact is not actually proof that a rule discriminates based on race. The excerpt claims exactly the opposite right at the beginning. If a neutral rule implemented in an even handed manner leads to differential results, that’s discrimination based on the observed behavior. It is not based on race, no matter how much people wish to assume that all races are the same.

      In the example, it shouldn’t actually matter whether one race is affected more than others because of some factor outside the school’s control. If they want to deal with it in a netral fashion, because it identifies an unreasonable rule, I have no problem with it. I object to the school being accused of racism (and what else would you call discrimination based on race) because of it.

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