The Trump administration is using the tragedy of school shootings to justify the rollback of Obama-era guidance that address disproportionate discipline of students of color and students with disabilities.
The administration’s Federal Commission on School Safety — which was formed after the shooting at a Florida school in February — released a report Tuesday that recommended rolling back policies that discouraged school officers from disciplining students for minor disruptions and that pushed for more positive and less punitive responses to student behavior. The report argued that these policies actually create more dangerous schools.
Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies with the University of California, Los Angeles, whose work focuses on how laws and policies affect children of color, said the reasoning behind the report’s recommendations didn’t hold up to further scrutiny.
“The guidance reflects and reminds districts about the law, which includes the disparate impact regulations which have been on the books since the 1960s. The guidance explained how to use them in school discipline in response to seeing these crazily high disparities [for students of color],” Losen said.
The report mentions severe acts such as rape, a stabbing, and assault of a teacher to justify rescinding the 2014 guidance, despite the fact that the guidance focused on minor infractions.
“It’s sort of disturbing to me that their response and their examples in passing fail to show it has something to do with violent acts,” Losen said. “All the violence in the  guidance is about corporal punishment, which is violence against children, and truancy violations and tardiness, those sorts of things.”
During the school safety panel’s wrap-up meeting on Tuesday, the panel said schools should coordinate more with law enforcement and have programs to arm school personnel, according to Politico. The panel also mentioned possible incentives for people with military and law enforcement backgrounds to work in K-12 schools. The panel did not weigh in on age restrictions for gun purchases and it recommended rolling back the Obama administration’s 2014 guidance on student discipline. It also endorsed extreme risk protection orders that allow family members, household members, and law enforcement to petition a court to restrict someone’s gun access.
The New York Times reported on Monday that the administration planned to say that these policies, which discouraged school officers from disciplining students and pushed for more positive and less punitive responses to student behavior, have had a part in school gun violence.
School shootings put public pressure on the administration to act. After the shooting of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day, there were numerous calls for change to gun policies across the United States. Students, parents, and community members marched, made calls to members of Congress and state lawmakers, and registered voters. During some of these marches calling for new gun policies, students risked discipline from their schools.
But instead of listening to those calls, the school safety commission’s only mention of gun laws when it first began was a discussion on minimum age for firearms purchases. The administration has also said the commission focuses on the impact that video games and the media have on violence, effective school safety infrastructure, and social emotional support.
When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led the commission, was questioned by senators in June, however, she didn’t even acknowledge the commission’s one mention of gun restrictions. During a Senate subcommittee hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked whether the commission would look at the “role of firearms as it relates to gun violence in our schools.” DeVos responded, “That is not part of the commission’s charge per se.”
Soon after the shooting in Florida, Trump said armed teachers would be effective in keeping schools safe. in In August, the New York Times reported that the Education Department was considering the idea of using $1 billion in Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants to purchase firearms and firearms training for schools. In September, after Democrats asked DeVos not to follow federal grants to be used for the purchase of guns, DeVos responded that there is “substantial flexibility” in ESEA that allows school districts to decide how funds are used.
The 2014 Obama-era guidelines the administration plans to rescind said schools should focus on restorative justice practices, social-emotional learning, peer mediation instead of punitive responses to students’ minor classroom disruptions, and mental health support to students. The guidelines also mentioned professional development training for school staff, evaluation of policies to ensure that students of color and students with disabilities weren’t being disproportionately disciplined, and that partnerships with law enforcement should clearly spell out officers’ roles in schools.
Existing data on student discipline clearly shows that students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined. Black students were 1.9 times more likely than white students to be expelled from school without educational services, according to 2016 Education Department data. Black students were 2.3 times more likely to be disciplined through involvement of officers. According to a 2015 UCLA Civil Rights Project report, 18 percent of secondary school students with disabilities were suspended compared to 10 percent of all students.
According to the Times report, the Justice and Education Departments will likely send a joint letter this week saying the departments will rescind all policy statements on the issue back to 2014. The head of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, Kenneth Marcus, signed the letter. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) asked Marcus during his confirmation hearing, what he thought about racial disparities in student discipline and his part of response was “I have seen what appeared to be inexcusable disparities that were the result of paperwork errors. They just got the numbers wrong.”
Marcus has also argued for narrowing or striking down the disparate impact provision of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Disparate impact is a practice in which a neutral policy can still adversely affect a protected class, such as students of color and students with disabilities. The commission’s report argues against disparate impact theory.
Losen gave the example of a school district that tells school principals that they can decide whether or not to discipline students for minor infractions such as truancy and tardiness. He explained that it isn’t just a policy with disparities associated with it, but an unjustified policy that harms one group more than others.
“One principal serving mostly black kids says, ‘OK we’ll suspend kids for truancy and tardiness’ and one serving a school with mostly white kids said, ‘No, we don’t do that for truancy and tardiness, that’s not helping them,'” Losen said. “If you have differences in school level policies within a district and it’s the racial demographics of the school combined with difference in the policies, that’s exactly what disparate impact is supposed to help guard against. If that’s causing more black kids to get suspended, not disparate treatment by the principal or teachers, but the policy, well that’s something you should change.”
“If that’s causing more Black kids to get suspended, not disparate treatment by the principal or teachers, but the policy, well that’s something you should change.”
The commission wrote, “At the same time, the federal government must also ensure that its policies and actions protect student safety, including when it is acting to ensure that educational programs and policies are administered in a racially neutral fashion. Where well-meaning but flawed policies endanger student safety, they must be changed.”
Republicans have also mentioned that Nikolas Cruz, the young man who killed and maimed students and staff at Marjorie Douglas High School, was referred to the PROMISE program, which was supposed to help students who commit minor crimes at school avoid the school-to-prison pipeline. It provided counseling and other supports for students. Cruz, who committed vandalism, never participated in the program, however.
Before the program was implemented, the Broward County School District had more arrests for minor crimes than any county in the state, according to South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The PROMISE program said that nearly nine out of 10 kids who participated in the program don’t commit another offense at school.
There isn’t a lot of evidence to support the idea that zero tolerance policies are effective in reducing school disruptions or keeping kids in school, according to experts on school discipline who spoke with ThinkProgress in March.
Russell Skiba, a professor of school psychology at Indiana University who works with schools to address changes to student discipline practices, told ThinkProgress at the time, “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.”
The news has not been received well by some students and educators.
JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said in a statement to ThinkProgress on the 2014 school discipline guidance:
“But in strikingly convoluted and sadly predictable fashion, the Commission asserts without foundation that this nonbinding guidance makes school less safe. The conclusion is offensive, it’s infuriating, it’s nonsensical, and it will assuredly lead to the result the administration wanted all along. Secretary DeVos in particular has demonstrated time and again her dexterity in undoing efforts to enforce the rights of vulnerable student populations.”
Nia Arrington, an 18-year-old public school student and co-founder of the One Pennsylvania Youth Power Collective, run by several students in Allegheny county who are fighting for students rights, said she is “disheartened and frankly disgusted” by the Trump administration’s approach to harden public schools and possibly roll back the 2014 guidance. A recent University of Pittburgh study found that Black students are suspended at seven times the rate of non-black peers in Allegheny County school districts.
“We see the numbers of school shootings and we automatically push to arm school police but we see the numbers of our kids missing their education.”
“If people can’t look at those numbers and see that something is wrong, that we are over-disciplining all children, but specifically black and brown children, then there is something majorly wrong,” she told ThinkProgress. “We see the numbers of school shootings and we automatically push to arm school police but we see the numbers of our kids missing their education.”
Arrington added, “We believe schools have to divest from school policing and instead increase funding for more guidance counselors, mental health supports, restorative justice, and higher pay for our teachers who are already in such a stressful position. We have to stop building the school-to-prison pipeline and by adding armed police to schools, we are not going to create a supportive more inclusive schooling environment in this country.”