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We Knew it was Coming: How the New Federal School Safety Recommendations Could Actually Harm Students

We knew it was coming.  

Yesterday, the Federal Commission on School Safety, a group created following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, released their report with recommendations for how to improve school safety.  

There were some good recommendations, including urging school districts to adopt “evidence-based multi-tiered behavioral framework(s) for improving behavioral outcomes and learning conditions for all students” and evidence-based behavior threat assessments. The Commission also recommended increasing access to mental health services and counseling in schools and finding ways to better integrate community-based mental health services into schools. These are recommendations that we agree with and that we have been urging Texas schools to adopt because we know they work to support individual students and improve school climates.

However, the report also contained some really disappointing and harmful recommendations, including that the Obama Administration’s Federal School Discipline Guidance should be rescinded. The Guidance provided information to school districts about how to avoid the racially discriminatory application of school discipline — a problem that many school districts in Texas have. Additionally, the Guidance provided useful information about research-based programs that encourage positive behaviors, ensure safe and positive school climates, and keep kids out of the school-to-prison pipeline.

A rescission of the Obama-era guidance does not change the fact that, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, no federally-funded entity, including school districts, may discriminate against students on the basis of race, sex, national origin, color, or religion. But, the recommendations and theories in the Commission Report related to school discipline send dangerous messages to school districts and threaten to embolden bad actors. The recommendation to rescind the Discipline Guidance:

  • Signals to states and school districts that the federal government is officially turning its back on pursuing, through the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), many of the glaring and well-documented problems with discriminatory discipline. This is incredibly disappointing for students, parents, and groups like ours because it essentially eliminates the federal complaint process as a remedy. Now, we cannot expect the federal government to investigate even when data show egregious race-based disparities unless we have direct evidence of intentional discrimination (which is very difficult to find without the kind of unfettered access to school records that only entities like OCR have).

  • Enforces the wrong and dangerous theory that inherent differences between the behavior of children of color and white children explain the disparities in school punishments. We know from study after study after study that Black children and Latino children are not more likely than their white peers to misbehave, yet they are more likely than their white peers to be punished and receive harsher punishments for the same behaviors, due to systemic racism and implicit bias on the part of the adults in schools. The Commission’s report ignores this research and instead bases its rescission recommendation on a racist red herring—a single study that claims that racial differences in punishment are due to the prior problem behavior of the students themselves, but that relies solely on teachers’ reports of “problem behavior” rather than any objective indicator. This builds in the very issue that other studies have attempted to control for - the implicit bias that informs subjective decisions about student misbehavior. The Commission Report then draws an incorrect and dangerous connection between a lack of discipline of children of color and school violence, thereby endorsing problematic stereotypes and absolving schools of any duty to examine and change their own practices and procedures.

  • Undermines the recommendations made in other chapters of the Commission Report and in the Obama Guidance related to best practices and important research-based approaches to school climate and school safety. In its explanation of why the Obama Guidance should be rescinded, the Commission Report relies on surveys distributed by the Texas Classroom Teachers Association and anecdotes from educators who felt that, under the Obama Guidance, they were being forced to ignore disruptive behavior and keep students in class in order to avoid racial disparities in their discipline data that might trigger federal intervention. These educators said that by not being able to suspend students, their classrooms were less safe. They suggested that their only two options were to a) suspend and invite federal investigation or b) not suspend and have unsafe classrooms. With its rescission recommendation, the Commission Report oddly reinforces this false dilemma, despite offering a number of research-based alternatives to exclusionary discipline in other chapters of their own Report, and emphasizing that these alternatives are preferable to exclusionary discipline because they produce better outcomes. The disconnect is striking: in the wake of chapters that repeatedly highlight the dangers of exclusionary discipline, the Commission Report recommends getting rid of federal oversight and protections for students of color so that educators will feel more free to utilize the suspensions and expulsions they’d turned away from under the Obama Guidance. It is as though two completely different entities authored these sections of the report—and we think they did: one group focused on evidence-based practices that ensure schools are safe places for students and teachers, and another focused on political pressure related to a specific legal theory that the new administration had already abandoned enforcing.

Advocates across the country have been waiting for this rescission for over a year—we watched other important protections being targeted and rolled back and the School Discipline Guidance was a clear next victim. But in Texas, in the wake of one of the tragedies that inspired this Task Force, we have to be vigilant to ensure that the unsupported opinions of a few loud voices, and the politically motivated objections to a particular legal theory don’t divert us from the path that will best ensure school safety: reliance on research-based strategies with a proven record of keeping our schools safe. We have described how Texas has taken some important steps in the right direction when it comes to building safe and supportive schools. Now, we must continue to move in the right direction.

 

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