By: Caitlin Emma
Trump School Safety Package Targets Obama School Discipline Policy
The problem is there’s no evidence to suggest that those policies had anything to do with the massacre at at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Still, Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are calling into question former President Barack Obama’s guidance — which is a long-time conservative flashpoint.
The school safety plan announced by President Donald Trump on Sunday night singled out the Obama directive for a possible repeal, suggesting that it may contribute to school violence. Advocates say a repeal is misguided and could potentially harm African-American students, Hispanic students and students with disabilities, who are more likely to be pushed out of school.
Republicans are also looking critically at a 2013 decision by Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie to overhaul the district’s school discipline policies and launch a program to replace some suspensions, expulsions and arrests with support, mentoring and counseling when students committed nonviolent offenses. That initiative predated the Obama guidance.
But Cruz wasn’t part of that Broward County program and he was never referred to that program, Runcie told POLITICO. Moreover, he had been suspended at least a couple times for bringing bullets to school and for fighting before being expelled. Outside of school, his behavior was reported to law enforcement dozens of times.
Still, Rubio connected the Parkland shooting to the Obama directive in a letter to top administration officials last week, stressing that federal policy shouldn’t discourage schools from reporting troubled students and that it could be “revised to strike an appropriate balance that marries school safety with student discipline and counseling.”
“Disturbing reports have indicated that federal guidance may have contributed to systemic failures to report Nikolas Cruz's dangerous behaviors to local law enforcement,” he wrote to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
"Any policy seeking to achieve these goals requires basic common sense and an understanding that failure to report troubled students, like Cruz, to law enforcement can have dangerous repercussions.”
The 2014 Obama directive was aimed at ensuring school districts aren’t discriminating against students while disciplining them, particularly when it comes to minor offenses. It sought to curb expulsions, out-of-school suspensions and school-based arrests of minority students who are disproportionately represented in school suspensions and expulsions, national data show.
Runcie said the connection that Rubio and other Republicans are making with the shooting is “wholly inaccurate” and politically motivated.
“It goes with the whole narrative that anything under the Obama administration is no good and we have to get rid of it,” he said. “If it were a cure for cancer, they would probably get rid of it.”
“You’re basically pushing kids’ lives and futures to the side in place of politics,” Runcie added. “If this guidance were eliminated, it wouldn’t have stopped Nikolas Cruz from getting a semi-automatic rifle at 18 years old.”
Runcie said it’s a diversion from “common sense” gun reform.
Other advocates agree.
“It points to a misunderstanding,” said Kristen Harper, director of policy at Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization, who previously worked with the Obama administration to craft the guidance. “It sends a disturbing message that the goals of school safety and advancing educational equity for children of color are in conflict.”
Broward County Public Schools, where Cruz went on his rampage, is the sixth-largest school district in the country. Broward was upheld by the Obama administration for its school discipline reforms after Runcie embarked on an effort to change the district’s “zero tolerance” approach. Runcie’s biography notes that “student-related arrests are down by 65 percent” since he joined the district in 2011.
Cruz had been suspended at least a couple of times for bringing bullets to school and for fighting, the Miami Herald has reported. He was ultimately expelled for disciplinary reasons.
Runcie has said he hasn’t seen any evidence that the district failed to contact law enforcement when it had information of possible criminal behavior involving Cruz, the Sun-Sentinel has reported, and he has ordered an independent review of what went wrong with Cruz’s education plan.
Runcie told POLITICO that the independent review will consider whether school officials failed to report Cruz to law enforcement.
But he added, “Any time law enforcement should be engaged, our educators are doing that. … There’s nothing in place that would stop anyone in any school from identifying a dangerous situation.”
The Obama guidance on school discipline has long been loathed by conservatives, and the Trump administration has already staffed up the Education Department with some notable critics. For example, Hans Bader, an attorney who has written critically about the discipline directive, joined the Education Department’s Office of General Counsel last year.
DeVos has heard from education groups on both sides of the issue, including conservative critics and teachers who’ve said that such policies keep dangerous children in schools, posing a physical threat to students and staff and creating a disruptive learning environment.
For example, Trump education officials last year met with a former teacher from Edina Public Schools in Minnesota who said she was “body slammed” by a first-grader in 2009.
“Why today, one year into the Trump administration, do we still have an Obama policy that forces districts to abandon traditional discipline without regard to student safety?” asked Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, during a Heritage Foundation event on Monday that looked critically at the guidance.
Trump tapped DeVos to lead a commission that will explore steps to prevent school violence, which includes a review of the Obama school discipline directive. When pressed by Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” Sunday night about whether “institutional racism” is a problem in school discipline, DeVos demurred.
“Arguably, this issue comes down to individual kids,” she said. “I am committed to making sure that students have the opportunity to learn in an environment that’s conducive to their learning.”
Still, recent federal civil rights data show that black students are nearly four times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white students. Black students are also “2.2 times as likely to receive a referral to law enforcement or be subject to a school-related arrest as white students,” a 2016 data snapshot says.
“The evidence is quite clear that bias is a problem,” former Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said in an interview. “What we’ve seen with this administration from the beginning is a real hostility to civil rights protections and an unwillingness to lead on issues of equity."
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