The Trump administration recommended rescinding Obama-era guidance designed to reduce racist school punishments as part of a much-anticipated Federal Commission on School Safety Report released Tuesday.
The report also recommends increasing the presence of armed personnel in schools ― ranging from police officers to teachers ― and urges states to adopt measures that allow extreme risk protection orders, which temporarily suspend an individual’s access to guns if they pose a danger to themselves or others.
The report was released after months of listening sessions and meetings between administration officials and stakeholders on the issue of school safety. It does not recommend new age restrictions for gun purchases, asserting that “available research does not support the conclusion” that such restrictions reduce homicide.
“We cannot keep our children safe by only looking at one issue of this much larger problem,” Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led the commission, said on a call with reporters Tuesday.
The Obama-era discipline guidance was speculated to be on the chopping block since before the administration formed its Federal Commission on School Safety in March. The Obama guidance, announced in 2014, is a non-binding set of recommendations for how to produce more equitable school punishments.
But after the deadly Parkland, Florida, shooting in February, the guidance was wrapped into larger issues of school safety ― especially after conservative stakeholders and legislators connected it to a restorative justice program that counted the Parkland shooter as a participant.
Civil rights advocates have blasted attempts to connect the guidance to the deadly shooting, and argue the Obama directive is essential to protecting minority students.
“We met with the administration to discuss the guidance, and we made it very clear we see it as an extension of Brown versus Board of Education,” Todd Cox, Director of Policy at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in late November. “Attacking that guidance is essentially attacking Brown and its legacy. It’s another example of how this administration doesn’t have students, particularly students of color, in its best interest.”
On a call with reporters, a senior administration official said that the guidance was preventing violent students in school from being punished. It is now all but certain that the guidance will be rescinded.
Instead, the report recommends “hardening” schools by increasing the presence of police officers and arming school staff. Research shows that increased presence of police in schools leads to more student arrests, which disproportionately impact of students of color.
In addition to DeVos, the commission included Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was involved as well before he was forced out of the administration in November.
School leaders and civil rights advocates have already begun to blast the report. National Association of Secondary School Principals executive director JoAnn Bartoletti said in a statement that many of the recommendations focus on strategies that are already well-known. She criticized the report’s avoidance of gun issues, calling the guidance to arm school personnel “obtuse.”
But Bartoletti saved her harshest criticism of the commission for its recommendation to rescind the Obama guidance.
“The Commission asserts without foundation that this non-binding guidance makes school less safe,“ Bartoletti said. “The conclusion is offensive, it’s infuriating, it’s nonsensical, and it will assuredly lead to the result the administration wanted all along.”
Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended in both rich and poor schools, the Government Accountability Office found in a report released in April.
The Obama guidance provided a set of proposals for how schools might remedy such disparities, and warned schools that they might be running afoul of federal discrimination law if certain groups of students are disproportionately punished, even unintentionally.
The legal theory underpinning this idea ― that even formally neutral policies may discriminate against certain groups of people ― is called disparate impact, but the Trump administration report questions its legal basis.
“Where well-meaning but flawed policies endanger student safety, they must be changed,” the new report states.
While the Obama guidance is non-prescriptive, it has long drawn the ire of conservative groups who say it is an example of federal overreach and has kept dangerous kids in the classroom at the expense of innocent children. In April, one parent told DeVos that her children have been tormented by school bullies, and she believed the Obama guidance helped keep them in the classroom.
“Whatever intentions were set forth in the guidance, the response to the guidance has been kind of knee-jerk in nature that has ended up hurting all of the children,” Nicole Landers of Baltimore County, Maryland, told HuffPost at the time. “It takes away the rights from the victimized students, as the offending students are left in the classroom to avoid suspensions.”
Civil rights groups, on the other hand, have fought fiercely to keep the guidance in place, viewing it as an important protection for students who are especially vulnerable.
Regardless of whether the guidance stays in place, school districts may still be violating federal law if they are consistently disciplining certain groups of students more harshly than others.
The report also focuses on improving mental health support in school and emphasizes the importance of social emotional learning. It includes recommendations for the media on its coverage of school shootings, urging journalists not to focus on the perpetrator.
Senior administration officials said on Tuesday they believe the commission’s report “can make a significant contribution to school safety.”
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