A federal commission headed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released a long-awaited school safety report today that recommends, among other things, that the Department of Education abandon Obama-era policies aimed at protecting children of color from excessive discipline in school. The 177-page report says that disciplinary decisions should be left to classroom teachers and local administrators who should not have to follow guidance issued by the federal government.
Under President Obama, in 2014 the administration put districts on notice that they could be in violation of federal civil rights law if students of color were suspended, expelled or otherwise disciplined at higher rates than white students. According to the education department’s civil rights office, among the 2.6 million students suspended each year, African-American boys are three times more likely than white boys to be suspended, African-American girls are six times more likely than white girls to be suspended, and students with disabilities are more than twice as likely as other students to be suspended.
Research shows that when students are suspended, expelled or arrested, they are more likely to drop out of school and suffer negative consequences. Critics of discriminatory discipline, including the ACLU, have called it the “school to prison pipeline.”
The safety commission was formed following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, when Nikolas Cruz, a former Douglas student with a history of discipline problems and suspensions, killed 17 students and staff members on February 14. After federal lawmakers briefly discussed gun control measures, the Trump administration turned its focus to the school safety commission led by Secretary DeVos.
Among what it characterizes as 93 “best practices and policy recommendations for improving safety at schools across the country,” the report recommends that schools “consider arming some specially selected and trained school personnel . . . as a deterrent.” At Douglas High School, an armed school resource officer was on campus the day of the shooting but stayed outside the building instead of confronting Cruz.
Cruz, who is white, is only mentioned in only four footnotes in the report, but the controversy surrounding the discipline he received as a student has served as a backdrop to the report. Before the Obama policies were released, the Broward County school district tried to work with local law enforcement to reduce discriminatory discipline, to curb suspensions and arrests, and to refer students to services rather than punishing them.
The county’s Promise program was viewed by many as a national model for discipline reform and went into effect before the Obama administration guidance. Cruz had been referred to the program in middle school, but there was no record that he received services. He was, however, expelled from school and referred to law enforcement numerous times. Nevertheless, conservatives, including Florida senator Marco Rubio, pointed to the Promise program as an example of dangerous policies endorsed by the Obama administration.
The commission, which includes Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who succeeded Attorney General Jeff Sessions, heard from dozens of experts from nearly 40 states and reviewed more than 1,500 comments.
Some people who spoke to the commission, like Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, told the committee she thought the Obama guidance should be repealed because it prevented teachers from disciplining disruptive students. “How can our educators be required to prepare students to be productive and contributing members of society if the classroom atmosphere is disruptive and chaotic because students creating the issues go largely unpunished or at least uncorrected?” she said to the commission. Kidd’s comments were reported by the Washington Post last week in an early story on the report’s contents.
A survey of superintendents found that only 16% had modified their disciplinary practices because of the Obama policy, but of those that made the change, 44% said it resulted in a positive experience and 4.5% said the experience was negative.
Two former Obama administration education secretaries, Arne Duncan and John King, criticized the commission’s report in a statement. “Today’s recommendation to roll back guidance that would protect students from unfair, systemic school discipline is beyond disheartening,” they wrote.