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adrian walker

Representative Katherine Clark takes on Betsy DeVos over ‘racist’ policy change

Representative Katherine Clark at a January news conference.
Andrew Harnik/Associated Press/File
Representative Katherine Clark at a January news conference.

The decision out of Washington last week to end a policy that protected black and brown students from unfair and often racist disciplinary practices could have easily passed with little notice.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — whose legacy will be that she has repeatedly trampled protections for students — did it again last week, relying on discredited research that blames over-punished students themselves for blatantly unfair rates of suspensions and expulsions.

But DeVos didn’t see Katherine Clark coming.

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The Melrose congresswoman was all over DeVos, blasting her in TV interviews and even calling for her resignation. Clark didn’t mince words, not at all, in decrying both the policy change and the entire Trump administration as racist.

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In a phone interview, Clark told me she thought it was important that DeVos’s decision not get lost in the torrent of startling news pouring out of Washington.

“Her fundamental job as secretary of education is to look out for every student and make sure they have a fair opportunity for a quality education,” Clark said. Clearly, she doesn’t think DeVos is doing that.

“This is an administration that is marked by racist policies,” she continued. “It’s one of its hallmarks. So while not surprising, we cannot let it go unanswered. And when she does something so fundamentally wrong as rescinding protections and cherry-picking racist research, we have to respond.”

The “research” Clark refers to is a study of disparities in school suspensions by a group of conservative researchers. In a 2014 paper, they reached the conclusion that, in their words “early and prolonged problem behavior accounts for the racial gap in suspensions.” In other words, black and brown students who were getting suspended at far higher rates than their white peers were simply getting what they deserved.

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That is ridiculous, as well as racist. And it’s a huge problem in our schools. My colleague James Vaznis recently reported on the state’s insistence that Roxbury Preparatory Charter School address its ridiculously high suspension rates for students of color. It’s a practice that stigmatizes students and seriously derails their learning.

Not surprisingly, DeVos did not take Clark’s suggestion that she step down. Initially, a spokesman for her department suggested that Clark was simply being opportunistic in criticizing the secretary; after a couple of days, the department stopped commenting altogether. Meanwhile, Clark said Congress is looking for ways to protect the students who stand to be affected by the change in policy.

“They should be ashamed,” Clark said. “The American public isn’t behind this. This is taking fringe research that when you look at the body of work of the writer it is an outrageous position — that these kids are just temperamentally different and the school-to-prison pipeline is inevitable, because that’s just what happens to black children.”

Criticized from the day she was first nominated for her post, DeVos has rolled back protections for one group of students after another: victims of sexual assault, students of color, students of for-profit colleges, even students with loans (that one was overturned in court). From the outset, she has displayed a blithe disregard for the notion that she should use her authority to ensure fairness.

But even by that standard, this decision — and the reasoning behind it — stands out.

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“This is disqualifying for any public official, let alone the secretary of education,” Clark said.

As Clark and I spoke last week, we knew that the this incident would soon fade in public consciousness, overtaken by the inevitable next outrage. Clark wasn’t just fighting against a policy. She was also arguing, it seemed, against the numbness that can make the unacceptable appear routine.

“We cannot just let these moments pass with a shrug of the shoulders,” Clark told me. “These are fundamental values to who we are as Americans. If we can’t stand up against this, what will we stand up against?”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. E-mail him at adrian.walker@globe.com. Or follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker.