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Betsy DeVos is using school shootings to justify draconian new discipline guidelines

A White House commission plans to consider a rollback of Obama administration guidelines on student discipline.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies during a hearing before the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee May 24, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies during a hearing before the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee May 24, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Republican lawmakers are considering moves that may undo years of progress in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.

A White House commission on school safety plans to hold its first meeting on Wednesday. According to Politico, the first meeting will be closed press, but subsequent meetings will have open press. There are already a lot of critics of the commission since teachers and students will be missing from the conversation, and the commission seems to be more interested in media coverage of school shootings and the influence of video games than on reforming gun policy.

But one of the biggest concerns is that the commission is considering rolling back Obama administration guidance on school discipline that discouraged officers from disciplining students and pushed for more positive and less punitive responses to student behavior. In other words, the federal government will undo the Obama administration’s work to keep students in school and out of the criminal justice system.

That 2014 Obama-era guidance addressed racial disparities in school discipline. Black preschool children were 3.6 times more likely than white children to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions, according to 2016 U.S. Department of Education data. Black students were 1.9 times more likely than white students to be expelled from school without educational services in K-12 and were 2.3 times more likely to be disciplined through involvement of officers. Officers have slammed students on the ground in New YorkNorth CarolinaSouth Carolina, and Texas.

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And there is evidence to suggest more officers in schools will lead to outsized responses to student disruptions. A 2009 study from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville found that officers are more likely to see a classroom disruption as criminal conduct even though no one’s safety is at risk.

As a result, students, particularly Black students who are often receiving this harsh discipline, lose their education and are pushed into the criminal justice system. In 2016, a report released by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project found that high school students who were suspended at least once in a single year of school were at a higher risk of dropping out. When students drop out, they’re more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system. Research on the the effectiveness of harsh discipline found that suspension as a deterrent for misbehavior does not appear to be effective, but that high-quality interventions, such as school services and behavior plans, may reduce disruptive behavior in school.

It’s not just the White House shifting attention away from gun control toward zero tolerance student discipline. Other Republican lawmakers are also pushing against Obama-era discipline reforms. Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced a bill that would prevent school districts from using federal funding to implement policies that would discourage schools from reporting any disciplinary action to law enforcement or discourage law enforcement from arresting students.

Rubio blames the Broward County school discipline policies and the PROMISE program (Preventing Recidivism Through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports & Education) for the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead last month. The PROMISE program provides alternatives to law enforcement and expulsion and according to Miami New-Times, it was clearly necessary, since students, and disproportionately students of color, were being handcuffed for minor classroom disruptions.

But the Parkland school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, wasn’t known to be in the school’s PROMISE program at the time Rubio made his remarks. And even so, the district’s discipline policies don’t prevent arrests of students who have made felony-level threats.

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Both the White House and Rubio are incorrectly linking the school shooting to efforts to reduce harsh student discipline practices that experts say are both ineffective and disproportionately hurt Black students and students with disabilities.

“There isn’t much data out there to show that zero tolerance policies are effective,” said Russell Skiba, a professor of school psychology at Indiana University who works with schools to address changes to student discipline practices. “In fact, the data shows that places that implement more suspensions and expulsion have higher rates of dropout, lower achievement, and are more likely to result in referral to juvenile justice.”

Linda Raffaele-Mendez, associate professor at the school psychology program at University of South Florida said the “overall body of literature” indicates that zero tolerance policies aren’t effective in reducing disruptions in schools.

“The direction that I’m wanting to see people move in is seeing where kids are coming from and meeting their needs and forming relationships,” Raffaele-Mendez said. “I want to see people create conditions in schools that make kids want to be there, as opposed to punishing them when they act out when the  climate overall isn’t conducive to kids wanting to be there and learn.”

The 2014 Obama administration guidelines said schools should focus on restorative justice practices, social-emotional learning, and peer mediation instead of punitive responses to students’ minor classroom disruptions and provide mental health support to students. The guidelines also included regular evaluation of classroom policies to ensure that students of color and students with disabilities weren’t being disproportionately disciplined, providing professional development training for school staff, and making sure partnerships with law enforcement clearly spell out officers’ roles in schools.

Raffaele-Mendez said school arrests can be traumatic for students who are already dealing with the effects of trauma. She said trauma-informed classroom practices help school staff understand why students are upset in class and how best to address their needs.

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“If you have a kid who gets angry at a teacher and curses for example, there are a lot of teachers who say that kid is immediately out of class and they’re going to go to the office,” she said. “The principal will initiate some kind of disciplinary procedure. But you never really get at the root of what is happening with that child and that is what trauma-informed care is about, even if we don’t know their trauma history, recognizing that kids can get set off by things and sometimes if we can just take a minute to try to figure out what is going on and talk to that kid, we can build a relationship. There is an opportunity for the student to engage in some kind of restorative practices instead of punishing the student for inappropriate behavior.”

States have been moving toward less punitive discipline practices for years, a couple years before the release of Obama administration guidance on discipline, Skiba said. Eighty-four percent of superintendents surveyed by the School Superintendents Association in 2014 reported that they updated their discipline policies within the past three years. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia revised laws to discourage schools from using exclusionary discipline practices and instead focus on things like restorative practices and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), combined with more counseling services. But Skiba is still worried that rescinding the Obama-era policy could damage ongoing efforts to reduce exclusionary discipline.

“We don’t know what impact reversing that guidance would have. That said, the guidance was based on research that has shown that zero-tolerance policies place students at risk for a number of long-term outcomes,” Skiba said. “And that’s especially true of students of color, so reversing the guidance would clearly be something that wouldn’t be in the best interest of students and schools across the nation.”

CORRECTION: Nikolas Cruz was actually referred to the PROMISE program in 2013, but never completed it. This wasn’t known at the time of publication, soon after Rubio made his comments about the program.