School-Safety Commission Rescinds Wrongheaded Obama Measure
Parents, teachers, and local school boards will be able pursue sensible discipline policies again.
Last week, President Trump released the report of his federal school-safety commission, which was launched in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Fla. The report largely highlights school-safety best practices. One key recommendation has stoked outrage from Democrats and the media: rescinding the Obama administration’s Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) on school discipline.
By common account, this is yet another Trumpian travesty. Rather than call for gun control, Trump exploited a school shooting by a white student to attack Obama’s legacy on a totally unrelated issue: “non-binding guidance” urging school districts not to discriminate against black students.
In reality, it’s become clear that Obama-era discipline policies played a pivotal role in enabling the shooter to buy his guns. Several felonies committed by the Parkland shooter had allegedly been brought to school administrators’ attention. Instead of arresting him or even suspending him, school administrators decided to prohibit him from bringing a backpack to school for fear that he would carry and then use deadly weapons.
This was par for the course in the Broward school district, famed for its culture of leniency. Broward superintendent Robert Runcie pioneered “discipline reform” as an effort to fight the “school-to-prison pipeline” by lowering suspensions, expulsions, and arrests. Broward school principals achieved their nationally renowned statistical success by sweeping troubling and criminal behavior under the rug.
In the case of the Parkland shooter, school administrators followed — against all common sense — Runcie’s mission statement: “We are not going to continue to arrest our kids.” Despite being a felon many times over, the shooter had a clean record, which enabled him to buy a firearm and commit an atrocity that school administrators knew he was capable of.
Two weeks before the tragedy, the Broad Center, an education nonprofit, ran a profile of Runcie, noting that his success in reducing suspensions, expulsions, and arrests “informed the [Obama] White House’s guidance on school disciplinary practices nationwide.” Runcie’s former boss from Chicago Public Schools, Obama secretary of education Arne Duncan, issued a 2014 DCL that threatened school districts and coerced them into following Broward County’s lead on school discipline.
According to advocates, the DCL was simply “non-binding guidance.” In truth, it telegraphed an unprecedented shift in federal civil-rights enforcement, from prohibiting disparate treatment to prohibiting disparate impact. Before 2014, the standard was: If a white and a black student both cursed at a teacher, it’s a civil-rights violation to suspend the white student and expel the black student. From 2014 until this week, the standard was: If two black students and one white student curse at a teacher, it could be a civil-rights violation to discipline them all equally, depending on the racial composition of the school district.
This statistics-based standard made perfect sense according to Duncan’s false premise. He declared (without evidence) that the racial disparity in school discipline was due largely to teacher racial bias rather than to student behavior (and the deeper societal inequities that influence it). If that were true (which it’s not), then teacher discretion on discipline ought to be reined in by “unbiased” bureaucrats.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights conducted hundreds of bad-faith “investigations” into school districts serving millions of students. Districts were presumed guilty and unable to prove their innocence. The investigations could end only when superintendents agreed to adopt policies to lower suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.
The results have been tragic. Top-down, aggressive discipline reforms have harmed academic achievement, have left students feeling less safe, and are overwhelmingly opposed by teachers. But teachers’ voices have been silenced. After all, if the policy is intended to fight racism, then how could anyone oppose it without being a racist?
In the seat of honor to the right of President Trump during the White House round table announcing the decision to rescind these policies was Andrew Pollack. Pollack lost his daughter Meadow in the Parkland shooting and conscripted a team of volunteers, including myself, to his independent investigation into what caused the most avoidable mass murder in American history. (He and I have a forthcoming book on it all: Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies That Created Parkland’s Shooter and Endanger America’s Students.) Pollack applauded that “the disastrous discipline policies that allowed the shooter to slip through the cracks and kill 17 are now being dismantled.”
Pollack was joined by Parkland fathers Ryan Petty and Max Schachter. If this were an era that valued character, achievement, and patriotism rather than posturing, Twitter-fighting, and division, Messrs. Pollack, Schachter, and Petty would have become national heroes for their work promoting bipartisan school-safety policies. Petty expressed the hope that “rather than fighting over things that you don’t like or think are missing, . . . the nation will come together and focus on things we do agree on.”
Unfortunately, Petty’s appeal to better angels will not reach the American people through the media. With Obama-era discipline policies having been framed as “intended to fight racism,” any skepticism of them has been labeled racist.
This is not the way America is supposed to work. Fortunately, thanks to the tireless efforts of these fathers and the leadership of President Trump, the Department of Education has taken one strong step to restoring the integrity of American education.
No longer will school superintendents fear that they will lose federal funds if they resist pressure to adopt discipline policies that undercut teacher authority. Parents will, once again, have a say in school discipline and school-safety policy. And these Parkland fathers will tell America the full story: who and what was to blame beyond the gun.
Armed with information from Parkland and recommendations from Trump’s school-safety commission, it will then be up to parents to go to their local school boards and push for new policies to make school safe again. President Trump’s report on school safety was the furthest thing from a travesty. It was a profound honor to the Parkland families, and a great service to all American schoolchildren.
This piece originally appeared in National Review