The school safety commission established by President Donald Trump in the wake of February’s Parkland shooting barely addressed guns, but recommended rolling back Obama-era guidelines aimed at making sure minority students aren’t disproportionately targeted for discipline.
That recommendation has emerged as one of the most controversial aspects of the report, which was released Tuesday — about 10 months after 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The commission, helmed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, was tasked with making recommendations for improving school safety.
The report argues that the 2014 Rethink Discipline guidance — which had aimed to combat steep racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions — has had a “chilling effect on school discipline.” At the time the guidance was issued, African-American students without disabilities were more than three times as likely as white students to be expelled or suspended, according to Office for Civil Rights data. More than half of students involved in school-related arrests were Hispanic or African-American.
“The Commission is deeply troubled that the Guidance, while well-intentioned, may have paradoxically contributed to making schools less safe. Significant concerns also remain regarding the legal framework upon which the Guidance is based,” the Trump Administration report states. “Research indicates that disparities in discipline that fall along racial lines may be due to societal factors other than race.”
But civil rights groups have criticized the decision, warning it will negatively impact students of color and raising questions about its relevance to mass shootings when school shooters are commonly white. Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr., who both served as education secretary under Obama, called the recommendation “beyond disheartening” and “shameful.”
“It probably will have a devastating effect on children of color and students of color throughout the country. Every district we work in, we see large disparities in the way discipline is meted out,” says Rachel Kleinman, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“I think this was something that the Administration had as a priority prior to even the existence of the school safety commission, and the commission is really being used as a cover in some way to make this policy change, which really is not something that is going to improve school safety — in fact, at least for black and Latino school children, it’s likely to decrease school safety.”
Nikolas Cruz, a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student who is white and has confessed to carrying out the Parkland shooting, had a lengthy school disciplinary record and had been referred to law enforcement agencies multiple times. He was involved in the PROMISE alternative disciplinary program, which preceded the Obama-era guidance and aimed to limit school arrests for minor offenses, including vandalism, bullying, petty theft or trespassing.
In July, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission determined that the program did not affect Cruz’s ability to obtain weapons. “It would never in any way, shape, form, would’ve affected his ability to buy that AR-15, to buy the shotguns, to buy anything else, to possess them,” Pinellas County Sheriff and commission chair Bob Gualtieri said in July.
“I think that’s the racism of it all — to conflate these two issues,” says Jonathan Stith, national director of the Alliance for Educational Justice. “And to blame Obama guidance for the tragedy of Stoneman Douglas in spite of facts and the independent investigation that says it didn’t play a role in that.”
Stith says he worries about the combination of revoking the disciplinary guidance at a time when many schools are responding to shootings by boosting a police presence and hiring more school resource officers. Data show that black students are arrested in school at disproportionately high levels, compared to other racial and ethnic groups.
But conservatives who had been critical of the 2014 guidance praised the recommendation on Tuesday.
“These disciplinary leniency policies have destabilized classrooms and made schools more disorderly and violent,” Max Eden, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who published a 2017 report about disorder caused by lax school discipline, said in a statement. “Now the Department of Education can get back to its traditional business of protecting students against discriminatory treatment, and local school districts will regain authority to craft policy with an eye toward their students, not federal bureaucrats.”
But civil rights advocates worry that revoking the guidance is akin to telling school districts that they don’t need to worry about discriminatory discipline practices. “Unfortunately a rescission of the guidance is doing more than just taking away that guidance,” says Kleinman. “It’s actually sending the message that you don’t have to worry about discriminating because this department is not going to do anything about it.”
The Trump Administration’s report also recommended improved access to mental health treatment and counseling, better training for law enforcement and school resource officers, effective school security plans, and programs that encourage highly trained veterans and retired law enforcement officers to take on roles in education.
But the commission largely avoided the topic of gun control and declined to recommend raising the minimum age for firearm purchases — something student activists and other gun control advocates called for in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
“Analyses of completed school shootings indicate that school shooters do not frequently use legal purchase as a method for obtaining firearms,” the report stated. But that was not the case for Cruz, who legally purchased the weapon used in the shooting when he was 18 years old.
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