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Trump school safety commission recommends rejection of Obama-era discipline reform, encourages more armed staff and physical security

Mark Keierleber | December 18, 2018

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President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at a previous meeting (Getty Images)

In a highly anticipated but controversial move, the Trump administration’s school safety commission recommended on Tuesday the repeal of Obama-era school discipline guidance that pushed schools to reduce their reliance on suspensions and warned them that racial disparities in punishments could violate federal civil rights laws.

The recommendation is one of many in a new report released by the Federal Commission on School Safety, chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and created after the February mass school shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Conservative education pundits have been calling on DeVos to rescind the discipline guidance since long before the massacre, and observers on both sides of the debate expressed surprise it has taken her so long to act. Still, Tuesday’s move inspired a fierce backlash from some teachers and civil rights groups who argue the administration is turning its back on black students who are disproportionately punished.

The 177-page report follows months of meetings and school visits featuring psychologists, campus-based police, school leaders, and other stakeholders. On the whole, it dodges calls for stricter gun laws and instead emphasizes defensive measures, such as arming school staff, increasing the presence of school-based police and “hardening” school buildings with physical security like bullet-resistant windows.

The report encourages more states to adopt “extreme risk protection order” laws that allow officials to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed unsafe to themselves or others. Such laws already exist in 13 states, the report notes. The report also urges states to consider training people how to store firearms safely and calls for further research on methods to prevent youth from unlawfully accessing guns. Separately, the Justice Department on Tuesday moved to formally ban “bump stocks,” which allow semi-automatic weapons to be fired more rapidly.

In step with her more conservative approach to school policy, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Tuesday the bulk of efforts to combat school violence should rest in the hands of local communities.

“Our recommendations can assist states and local communities, but ultimately governors and state legislators should work with local school leaders, teachers, parents and students to address their own unique challenges and develop their own specific solutions,” DeVos said on a call with reporters Tuesday morning.

Addressing the Obama-era discipline guidance directly, a senior White House official on the call said they were concerned about a “recurring narrative” that students and educators feared leaving the antisocial or aggressive behaviors of students “unpunished.”

“That’s the first move that the report makes is to correct for that problem,” the official said.

President Donald Trump discussed the report Tuesday afternoon during a roundtable discussion at the White House featuring several parents who lost children in the Parkland shooting.

“We’ve taken important steps, but much work remains to be done, as always,” Trump said before outlining several recommendations in the report, including one to arm school personnel. “All of this horrible carnage takes place in a very short period of time. That is why it’s critical to have armed personnel available at a moment’s notice.”

The school discipline debate stems back to 2014, when the Obama-led Departments of Education and Justice released a joint “dear colleague” letter that put districts that disciplined students of color and those with disabilities disproportionately on notice that they could be in violation of federal civil rights laws. The letter targeted discipline policies that didn’t explicitly mention race but had “a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.”

While acknowledging that a range of factors contribute to racial disparities in discipline, the Obama administration said the differences couldn’t be explained by more frequent or serious misbehavior among students of color, adding that “unexplained racial disparities in student discipline give rise to concerns that schools may be engaging in racial discrimination.”

Though some districts had already recalibrated their discipline policies away from suspensions in favor of reforms like restorative justice, the guidance urged others to follow suit. Proponents have argued suspensions are ineffective and that racial disparities in student discipline stem, at least in part, from implicit bias.

“Studies have consistently found harsh exclusionary discipline and physical punishments are associated with negative long-term outcomes,” former Education Secretaries Arne Duncan and John King said in a statement. “We put this guidance in place to start a conversation about these harmful practices and encourage advocates and policymakers to look more deeply into why these disparities exist and to intervene when necessary.”

But critics accused the Obama administration of government overreach and of sowing chaos and disorder in schools.

The most recent federal data on student discipline shows a marked decline in student suspensions in recent years. In 2015-16, roughly 2.7 million students received at least one out-of-school suspension — about 100,000 fewer than in 2013-14. However, racial disparities in discipline persist.

During the 2015-16 school year, black boys and girls each made up just 8 percent of enrolled students, but black boys made up 25 percent of students suspended at least once, and black girls accounted for another 14 percent. Black boys comprised 23 percent of students expelled, as did 20 percent of black girls.

When the Trump administration announced the creation of the safety commission, it listed the repeal of the discipline guidance as one strategy to prevent violence.

In the commission report, the Trump administration argues the discipline guidance threatened districts with federal civil rights investigations, likely causing “a strong, negative” impact on school safety. The report said the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights should investigate and remedy discrimination “when there is evidence beyond a mere statistical disparity.”

School discipline reforms in Broward County became a sticking point after reporters examined the disciplinary record of the accused gunman in Parkland. In 2013, the year before the Obama administration’s guidance was released, the Broward County school district launched a diversion program designed to help students who commit minor offenses avoid suspension and arrest. After the shooting, Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, urged the Trump administration to rescind the discipline guidance, arguing that the Broward County district’s efforts to reduce suspensions could have contributed to the shooting. The suspected gunman, who is white, was expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School prior to the attack.

In July, a state commission investigating the Parkland shooting found several flaws in the district’s discipline policy but concluded it wasn’t relevant to the massacre. Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, argues otherwise. Although Broward County’s discipline reforms preceded the Obama administration’s “dear colleague” letter, he said the Florida district’s efforts helped “inform and inspire” the federal guidance. He called the Parkland shooting an “extreme case study” of what can go wrong when districts try to reduce suspension rates.

“This is a kid who didn’t get arrested despite having allegedly committed many crimes in school, and a school district that made a point of trying to reduce arrests as aggressively as possible,” Eden said. “I wonder if some red flags were missed willfully in the course of this individual’s life.”

David Griffith, senior research and policy associate at the Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education think tank, supports the repeal of the Obama-era guidance. Though suspensions could harm student outcomes, he said he supports a “bottom up” approach to addressing the issue and does not want “to just accuse every teacher in America of secret racism.”

But linking the broader policy debate over student discipline to Parkland, he said, is “deeply irresponsible.”

“You cannot just observe that a school shooting happened and then start talking about — without evidence, really — the fact that discipline reform is responsible for it,” Griffith said. “There are very real school safety issues. Suspensions are connected to them, but anybody who is trying to link a specific act of violence to the broader debate over school discipline probably isn’t trying to get at the truth.”

Even without Parkland’s incendiary baggage, the school discipline debate remains highly fraught. Researchers are still exploring the effects of suspensions on student outcomes, the drivers behind racial disparities and the efficacy of alternatives like restorative justice. One recent study, conducted by researchers at Mathematica Policy Research and the University of Pennsylvania, found that out-of-school suspensions hamper the academic achievement of punished students but have no effects on their well-behaved classroom peers. Another report, conducted by researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans, found that when black and white students get into fights, the black student received a slightly longer suspension.

Among the groups that urged DeVos to keep the discipline guidance in place is the nonprofit Educators for Excellence. In a recent teacher survey, the group found fewer than 40 percent of teachers saw suspensions or expulsions as effective strategies to improve student behavior. A larger share of respondents favor non-punitive discipline approaches like positive behavior enforcement and restorative practices, though educators said they wanted more training on how to implement the alternative methods.

DeVos “promised to listen to teachers, the real experts on student discipline, but their pleas clearly fell on deaf ears,” Evan Stone, co-founder and co-CEO of Educators for Excellence, said in a statement. He noted that while the Education Department is able to rescind the guidance, it doesn’t have authority to change federal civil rights laws, and cannot change the reality inside American classrooms. “The decision does not change the fact that there is a persistent problem that threatens the future of millions of children, and the Department must work with teachers to find solutions.”

Among education leaders who met with DeVos and encouraged her to rescind the guidance was Ann Miller, a board member at Baltimore County Public Schools. Shortly after the federal guidance was released, the state education board in Maryland adopted a policy designed to reduce suspension rates. While the suspension rate in Baltimore County has actually increased over the last several years, Miller argued the punishments fell far short of the number of student disruptions.

Brett Bigham, an educator from Oregon and the state’s teacher of the year in 2014, urged DeVos to retain the discipline guidance — despite experiencing brutal violence and threats from students over the course of his teaching career. Bigham is currently a substitute teacher in Portland but has spent most of his career in special education classrooms. In one violent episode, Bigham said a student slapped him in the face with the understanding he’d get sent home for misbehavior. But sending the student home, Bigham said, didn’t improve the child’s behavior. Some students view suspensions as a reward, he said, because they get to stay home and play video games.

Bigham was working at a suburban Portland school when the Obama administration released the discipline guidance, which he said resulted in the district hiring more support staff for teachers. Removing the guidance, he argued, could hurt students.

“You condemn that child to a life of poverty in the best-case scenario because they’re not going to finish school very well,” he said. “If they’re being sent home two days a week, they’re not going to graduate. They’re going to be condemned to a life of poverty or they’re going to be condemned to a life in prison because they can’t make a living.”

JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, criticized the administration for spending “seven months and untold tax dollars on rediscovering well-known safety strategies” but welcomed the report’s call to improve mental health supports for students. In a statement, Bartoletti criticized the administration’s recommendation to arm school personnel — “markably the only federal guidance this administration does not perceive as intrusive and burdensome, on a notion rejected by a consensus of education organizations and the educators, parents and students they represent.”

AASA, The School Superintendents Association, criticized the commission for issuing recommendations without additional federal investment.

“If a district cannot afford to hire a mental health provider, it’s hard to imagine how recommendations to adopt comprehensive school-based mental health care services could be meaningfully implemented,” the group’s executive director, Daniel Domenech, said in a statement. “Similarly, if a district has been unable to afford updating its buildings for 40 years, it’s impossible to imagine they would be well-served by a recommendation to limit entry points by rerouting roads or eliminating access points to the building.”

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