Trump panel recommends roll back of Obama-era school discipline rules

President Trump's federal school safety commission was tasked with improving security in America's schools, and on Dec. 18 it issued its recommendations – among them, suggestions for arming teachers and 'hardening' school buildings against attackers. 

Evan Vucci/AP
President Trump listens as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during a roundtable discussion on the Federal Commission on School Safety report, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, on Dec. 18, 2018 in Washington.

The Trump administration on Dec. 18 moved to roll back an Obama-era policy that was meant to curb racial disparities in school discipline but that critics say left schools afraid to take action against potentially dangerous students.

The recommendation was among dozens issued in a new report by President Trump's federal school safety commission, which was formed in response to a Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 students and staff members, and sparked a national debate over gun control.

The panel was asked to study a range of options to bolster security at America's schools, from the regulation of guns to the regulation of violent video games. Yet rather than suggest a series of sweeping changes, the commission issued 100 smaller suggestions that largely avoid strong stances on topics like gun control and whether schools should arm teachers.

"Our conclusions in this report do not impose one-size-fits-all solutions for everyone, everywhere," said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led the commission. "The primary responsibility for the physical security of schools and the safety of their students naturally rests with states and local communities."

Mr. Trump praised the report at a White House event Dec. 18, saying "nothing is more important than protecting our nation's children."

On the question of whether schools should arm staff members, the panel said it should be left to states and schools to decide, but Secretary DeVos said schools should "seriously consider" the option. The report highlights districts that have armed staff members, and it steers schools to federal funding that can be used for firearm training.

Among the biggest proposals is a rollback of 2014 guidance that urges schools not to suspend, expel, or report students to police except in the most extreme cases. Instead, the guidance calls for a variety of "restorative justice" remedies that don't remove students from the classroom.

Former President Barack Obama's administration issued the guidance after finding that black students were more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled. The directive warns that schools suspected of discrimination – even if it is unintentional – can face investigations and risk losing federal funding.

But the policy came under scrutiny following the Parkland shooting, with some conservatives suggesting it discouraged school officials from reporting the shooter's past behavioral problems to police. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the most vocal critics, urged DeVos to find a better balance between discipline and school safety.

In its report, the commission says the policy was well-intentioned but "may have paradoxically contributed to making schools less safe." It calls for a rollback, saying disciplinary decisions should be left to school officials. It said the Justice Department should continue investigating intentional discrimination but not the unintentional cases that are barred under the 2014 policy.

The proposed rollback was praised by some conservative groups but drew sharp criticism from Democrats and advocacy groups.

"Despite overwhelming evidence and basic common sense, Secretary DeVos is trying to make the case that it's not weapons of war in schools that make students unsafe, but rather the true danger is schools' attempts to fight racism and inappropriate discipline," said Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate's committee overseeing education.

Along with DeVos, the safety commission includes leaders of the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security. They issued their findings after more than a dozen meetings with teachers, parents, students, mental health experts, police, and survivors of school shootings.

At a White House event following the release of the report, families of some shooting victims applauded the commission's work. Andy Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was killed in the Parkland shooting, said the Trump administration listened to his concerns about school safety.

"This is the most comprehensive report done after a school shooting ever done by an administration, that is going to affect the quality of life of all students and teachers throughout this country," Mr. Pollack said.

But some critics said the report will do little to improve school safety. The National Association of School Psychologists said the report "largely reiterates already well-known and evidence-based efforts." The group said the report is short on specifics and fails to provide federal funding for its proposals, which many schools can't afford.

While the report doesn't explicitly encourage schools to arm staff members, it says they "may consider" the option if their states allow it. And while DeVos has previously said she has no plans to let schools use federal education funding to arm their employees, the panel noted that certain Justice Department grants can be used on firearm training.

The nation's two major teachers unions attacked the report, saying it should have focused on gun control rather than arming teachers, which both unions oppose.

"We do not need more guns in schools," said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association. "It is shameful that the Trump administration is using the real risk of gun violence in our schools to strip vulnerable students of their civil rights, while doing nothing to keep all our students safe."

On gun regulation, the commission's only suggested change was a call for more states to adopt laws allowing "extreme risk protection orders," or court orders that temporarily restrict access to firearms for people who are found to pose risks to themselves or others.

The group studied whether states should raise the minimum age to buy guns, which is often 18 for rifles and 21 for handguns. Some states have increased the minimum age to 21 for all guns, including Florida, which made the move following the Parkland shooting. It joined others including Hawaii and Illinois.

But the panel argues the change doesn't make schools safer. It said there's no research showing that age restrictions reduce killings, and it noted that most school shooters get their guns from family members, not through purchases.

Among other proposals, the commission called for more training to help school officials identify mental health problems when students are younger, and it urges schools to hire more military veterans or retired police officers with the training to respond in an emergency.

It also suggested measures schools should take to "harden" their buildings, including installing windows with laminated or bulletproof glass, and making sure all classroom doors can be locked from the inside.

"Sadly, incidents of school violence are too common, and too many families and communities have faced these horrible challenges," DeVos said. "But Americans have never shied away from challenges, nor have we cowered when evil manifests itself."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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