Most of the headlines emerging from the White House’s new “hardening schools” proposal are focusing on its push to arm teachers and other staff to protect against school shooters.
But buried deep in the proposal, released Sunday, is the announcement of a new Federal Commission on School Safety, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. It will consider, among other issues, repealing the Obama administration’s “Rethink School Discipline” policies.
At the moment, the idea consists of a single line in a White House announcement, but that is sufficient to worry school safety, civil rights and teachers' advocates. They say protecting schools from outside gunmen is an entirely different job from the day-to-day effort to manage school discipline so it doesn't discriminate against minority and disabled students.
“It is completely divorced and should be completely divorced from how to address external shooters,” said Catherine Lhamon, former U.S. Education Department assistant secretary for civil rights under President Obama.
In the weeks since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have complained that the Obama administration’s 2014 guidance on discipline has created chaos in schools.
The guidance pointed out that in the 2011-2012 school year, 3.45 million students received out-of-school suspensions, and that about one in 12 school districts reported suspending at least one preschooler. Federal officials noted that students of color and those with disabilities “are generally suspended and expelled at higher rates than their peers,” often for minor offenses.
In a letter issued last week, Rubio said the 2014 guidance “discouraged schools from referring students to local law enforcement,” leading educators, rather than school resource officers or other law enforcement personnel, to take charge of discipline. Harsh federal penalties for high suspension rates, he said, have “arguably made it easier for schools to not report students to law enforcement.”
Rubio urged DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to immediately revise the guidance to ensure that schools report violent and dangerous students to local law enforcement.
Alleged Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz’s school discipline records show that he had a string of referrals for profanity, disobedience, insubordination, and disruption, the Miami Herald reported last month.
In 2014, he was transferred to an alternative school for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Two years later, he transferred to Stoneman Douglas High School, a neighborhood school, where former classmates said he was bullied.
Several students told the Herald they reported Cruz’s stalking and violent threats to school staff, but that the threats were never enough to get him arrested.
Stoneman Douglas eventually expelled Cruz in early 2017, and he spent the rest of his high school career moving between three alternative schools. But Broward County, Fla., school district officials never expelled him from the system, since legally it couldn’t.
But it turns out that the Broward County had changed discipline policies in 2013, a year before Obama’s guidance, touting what Education Week called a “major overhaul” of district rules. The revamped system directed educators to summon police as a last recourse, relying on law enforcement only after five successive levels of intervention had failed.
“We've done away with the phrase 'zero tolerance,'" County Sheriff Scott Israel said in November 2013. “Students will not become collateral damage of the way things used to be.”
Lhamon, who now chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said the guidance was designed to ensure that schools don’t discriminate against students on the basis of race or disability when imposing school discipline. But it doesn’t forbid schools from kicking students out if they’re a danger to others.
She noted that school officials had disciplined Cruz and took “measures that were appropriate” to keep others safe. “School discipline policies have nothing to do with what Nikolas Cruz did to murder people at that school,” she said.
Jocelyn Samuels, a former acting assistant attorney general for civil rights who co-signed the 2014 guidance letter alongside Lhamon, said its purpose was not to put an end to suspensions, but to "arm schools with the tools and information to get out in front of discipline problems before they needed to rely on suspensions or referrals to the criminal justice system."
The guidance, she said, directed schools to look at practices that lead to suspensions and to pursue "more limited discipline" that doesn't rely so heavily on sending students home.
The U.S. Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for more information on the new discipline proposal, but U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Monday told NBC’s “Today” show that the commission “is really the first step in a more lengthy process” to make schools safer. “Everything is on the table," she said, adding that the commission will consider gun control and “a number of other issues. We have to get much broader than talking about guns.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Trump’s plan to harden schools with gun-toting teachers and more security won’t make students safer.
“You need to spend one nanosecond in schools to know that making schools like penitentiaries will not help children thrive,” she said.
Returning to zero-tolerance discipline policies or relying on gun-carrying teachers “is really bad policy” that will make schools less safe from troubled shooters, she said. “We need to make schools more welcoming and safe environments” to ensure that students like Cruz can confide in adults and get the help they need.
Weingarten noted that Cruz was kicked out of Stoneman Douglas when his behavior became intolerable, but that other systems apparently failed him. “The state never did what it needed to do to get the kid services outside of the school system,” she said.
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