This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
National and local advocates and educators are reacting negatively to a federal report on school safety that proposes abandoning Obama-era guidelines that call for schools to implement non-discriminatory discipline policies.
The Federal Commission on School Safety report was undertaken after the mass shooting in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and released this week. It said that the Department of Education guidelines issued in 2014 had resulted in fears among parents and educators that disruptive students remain in school buildings when they should not be, compromising safety.
“The guidance sent the unfortunate message that the federal government, rather than teachers and local administrators, best handles school discipline,” the commission wrote. “As a result, fearful of potential investigations, some school districts may have driven their discipline policies and practices more by numbers than by teacher input.”
The report downplays the role that the availability of firearms played in the Parkland shooting, which was perpetrated by a troubled former student of the high school. It also calls for more mental and behavioral health services for students.
Democrats, student and education advocates, and the two largest teachers’ unions did not hold back in their denunciation of the report.
“Claims that federal measures to address racial and disability disparities have caused lax discipline and triggered a wave of school violence are simply inaccurate and dishonest,” said a statement by the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, which has worked for decades to reform school discipline policies. The center has particularly targeted the so-called zero-tolerance approach to school discipline that often criminalized school misbehavior and sent students into a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“The federal discipline guidance did not cause the Parkland massacre,” the ELC-PA statement said. “Major school shootings have not been perpetrated by Black students. Reductions in out-of-school suspensions began well before 2014, as advocates effectively moved school districts away from zero-tolerance discipline policies that were ineffective as well as discriminatory. A more honest explanation would acknowledge that the current policy shift is part of a concerted effort by the Trump administration to roll back protections for students of color and students with disabilities.”
The four-member commission – Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and three other cabinet members – conducted several hearings around the country and solicited testimony from groups and individuals. The report quoted some teachers who described incidents in which bullies and disruptive students remained in schools because administrators feared violating the guidelines, with the result that other students suffered, including academically.
Two national teachers’ unions took umbrage at the suggestion in the report that teachers felt the Obama guidelines made schools less safe.
A spokesman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said the report’s recommendations were misguided.
“We would like to see more emphasis on restorative justice and less emphasis on police,” said George Jackson, PFT spokesman. The union included a clause in its most recent contract promising to work with District leadership to promote restorative justice approaches in schools.
Jackson emphasized, however, that effective implementation of restorative justice requires more resources, including counselors and personnel trained to deal with students to stave off problems before they happen.
“You do have to have these things resourced,” he said. Support personnel in Philadelphia schools become “fewer and fewer every year. But the whole notion of diverting those resources to law enforcement and police is not getting at the issue of giving kids the help they really need.”
The report devoted considerable space to the argument that “neutral” policies that have “disparate impact” on certain groups are not on their face discriminatory and cited court orders backing this position.
But Jackson said that the PFT is acutely aware of how traditional, punitive disciplinary practices disproportionately affect students of color. “We know how it impacts our kids negatively.”
“Schools can and should continue to eliminate harsh school discipline practices and implement fair and responsible discipline policies,” the ELC statement said. “Suspensions are ineffective deterrents to student misbehavior and result in significant lost instructional time, while increasing the likelihood of dropping out. Arming school personnel poses a heightened safety risk to students and has a negative effect on school climate. Responses to misbehavior should focus on helping children do better in the future, not pushing them out of school. Restorative justice is one of many alternative approaches that support positive behavior and achievement.”
The Philadelphia School District has embraced the restorative justice approach and abandoned harsh zero-tolerance policies, although its implementation varies by school. A police diversion program that began in 2014 has reduced school-based arrests by 71 percent.
District spokesman Lee Whack said that the District doesn’t plan changing direction on discipline and “will remain focused on decreasing racial disparities in discipline throughout all of our schools.”
He noted that since abandoning the zero-tolerance approach, there has been a decrease in suspensions and an increase in attendance. Suspensions and expulsions are now prohibited through 2nd grade, except for offenses resulting in bodily injury.
“Investing in additional school climate supports, implementing a restorative justice approach, focusing on mental health services, using trauma-informed care practices and collaborating with law enforcement and other city agencies to divert arrests are helping our school environments improve,” Whack said. “We are committed to continuing this progress for the betterment of all of our students.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, of which the PFT is a part, was unhappy that the commission didn’t take a strong stance against arming teachers.
“But most curious and disappointing is the report’s use of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to push an anti-civil rights agenda that won’t keep schools safe,” Weingarten said.
She said the report represented a “missed opportunity” to collaborate where there is agreement, such as the need for more mental health supports for students.
“Parents, students, and educators want schools to be safe,” she said. “That requires fair discipline policies, but also a real investment in meaningful mental health supports and other key recommendations in the report, plus the advancement of commonsense gun safety reforms to help curb the gun violence epidemic in our country.”
The president of the National Education Association was equally upset, saying that students and teachers were not heard in the report or at the meeting releasing it.
“This commission is meeting just days after hundreds of thousands of students held marches in Washington and across the country to demand meaningful action to prevent gun violence in our schools and communities,” Lily Eskelsen Garcia of the NEA said in a statement. “Yet, today’s meeting purposefully excludes the voices of students, educators, and parents. … Our students deserve better than hollow words and an insincere, closed and secretive commission.”
The American Association of School Psychologists applauded the recommendation for more mental health supports, but noted that many schools have no resources to provide them. The report did not call for federal funding or other help in that area.
It also said that “assertions that the Obama administration’s school discipline guidance has decreased safety in schools are not grounded in research or reality.”