School safety panel takes aim <br/>at Obama’s discipline guidance
WASHINGTON — President Trump’s school safety commission will recommend canceling an Obama-era initiative meant to reduce racial disparities in school discipline and will not recommend new gun restrictions, people familiar with the matter said.
The commission, formed following the February shooting at a Florida school that left 17 people dead, is expected to sidestep contentious questions in the debate over guns laws. The panel’s report, which officials plan to release this month, will consist mostly of ideas for addressing mental health, school security, and other issues, these people said.
The recommendation to rescind the Obama administration’s guidance to schools over discipline will be the report’s most concrete element, a controversial move with disputed ties to the mass shootings the commission was formed to address.
The guidance, issued by the Education Department in 2014 as a letter to school officials, puts districts on notice that they could be in violation of federal civil rights law if black students or other students of color are suspended, expelled, or otherwise disciplined at higher rates than white students.
Conservatives, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have long seen it as an example of federal government overreach. Supporters say the memo was necessary to address large disparities driven by sometimes unintended racial bias.
The decision to revoke the guidance resides with DeVos, who also chairs the Federal Commission on School Safety, created in the aftermath of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. A former student, Nikolas Cruz, is charged with murder in connection with the shooting.
Following the attack, many students and others called for new gun restrictions and organized large marches demanding action. The commission was a key part of the White House response.
The commission considered only one question involving gun laws: whether to raise the minimum age for firearms purchases. Immediately after the Parkland shooting, President Trump suggested he might support doing so but then backtracked. The commission will not recommend changing the law, these people said.
The report will not explicitly recommend arming teachers, but will offer guidelines for schools choosing to do so, according to the people familiar with the report who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly ahead of its release.
Most of the school safety report will consist of promising ideas, or ‘‘best practices,’’ on subjects including violent entertainment, press coverage of mass shootings, access to mental health treatment, and school building security, these people said.
After the Parkland shooting, some conservatives pointed to the discipline guidance as partly to blame. There were reports Cruz had participated in Broward County’s Promise program, which provides alternatives to arrest for some students. The program was considered an early example of the kind of initiative the Obama discipline guidelines encouraged. Critics said the discipline guidelines allowed bad behavior to fester, setting the stage for violent acts.
In March, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, wrote DeVos and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the goals of the discipline guidance were ‘‘laudable.’’ But he said they lacked ‘‘basic common sense and an understanding that failure to report troubled students, like Cruz, to law enforcement can have dangerous repercussions.’’
But the supposed connection between the Obama guidance and the alleged Parkland killer is far from clear. The Promise program was created in 2013, a year before the Obama letter was published. While Cruz was referred to the Promise program for a three-day stint, it is not clear he attended. And Cruz is white, while the guidance was meant to curb disproportionate discipline of racial minorities.
Still, Trump directed the school safety commission to investigate the issue.
The report will not directly cancel the guidance, according to people familiar with the planning. But because DeVos chairs the commission, she is in effect making a recommendation to herself.
DeVos has long said she dislikes this type of guidance because it is perceived as a directive to local districts without the deliberative process required for a formal regulation.
The 2014 Obama-era letter cited data showing African-American students are more likely to be disciplined than their white peers and said the gap cannot be explained by more frequent or serious misbehavior. Relying on the concept of ‘‘disparate impact,’’ it said a school may be discriminating if its policies have a discriminatory effect, even if they are not explicitly biased.
A report this year from the Government Accountability Office documented the gaps and suggested racial bias may be to blame: ‘‘Implicit bias — stereotypes or unconscious association about people — on the part of teachers and staff may cause them to judge students’ behavior differently based on the students’ race and sex.’’
The Trump administration has been far more skeptical of investigating systemic bias in schools than was the case under President Barack Obama. The Education Department no longer opens investigations of allegations of systemic discrimination, focusing instead on individual complaints.
Still, some school officials say systemic discrimination is real and should be addressed. In Providence, an effort to reduce suspensions succeeded overall, but the district found the numbers dropped much more dramatically for Latino students than for African-Americans, said superintendent Christopher Maher. The reason, he said: ‘‘We are a racist society, specifically against African-Americans.’’ He said the district’s work to reduce suspensions would continue even if the discipline guidance is rescinded.
The commission spent little time debating discipline questions in public sessions. During one meeting, two people invited to testify addressed the issue.
One was Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, who explicitly recommended repealing the guidance. She said in an interview that she expressed her view in a private meeting with DeVos and, after that, was asked to give public testimony.
‘‘How can our educators be required to prepare students to be productive and contributing members of society if the classroom atmosphere is disruptive and chaotic because students creating the issues go largely unpunished or at least uncorrected?’’ she told the commission.
A representative of the National School Boards Association, Francisco Negron Jr., told the commission the federal government should defer to ‘‘local education experts’’ but did not directly address the guidance.
During commission sessions when anyone could speak, most people who addressed the issue expressed support for keeping the guidance.
‘‘We believe that a return to the racially biased school discipline practices of the past in the name of safety is both careless and irresponsible,’’ said Brandon Lewis, who was with the National Urban League at the time.
Noelle Ng, speaking for six school groups, including the leading confederation of school superintendents, told the panel the issue school leaders are ‘‘least interested in having the commission address’’ is repeal of the discipline guidance.
A survey of superintendents found just 16 percent had modified their districts’ practices based on the Obama guidance. Among those making changes, nearly half said it had been a positive experience, with 4 percent reporting negative impacts.
The commission addressed the discipline issue during a site visit in May to Hanover, Md. DeVos and other representatives from the safety commission traveled to a school that uses a framework called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which includes targeted interventions to reduce disciplinary actions.
It is the type of program the Obama administration encouraged. During the visit, Trump administration officials appeared impressed with what they saw.
‘‘You’re doing great work fostering a positive school culture, and I thank you for that,’’ DeVos told local school officials. ‘‘We just enjoyed visits to four classrooms, and it was a joy to be in each one of them.’’