Editor’s Note: Anurima Bhargava is President of Anthem of Us, a strategic advisory firm. Previously she was the chief of the Educational Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department and served as director of the educational practice at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The views expressed here are the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this year are among the most horrific acts of violence in American history. In the wake of each tragedy, both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump called for administration-wide efforts to promote school safety and protect the nation’s children. Last week, Trump’s Federal Commission on School Safety issued a comprehensive set of recommendations, many of which echoed what Obama had pushed five years ago: mental health services, positive behavioral interventions and support for students, as well as training for school personnel and law enforcement to address violence in schools.
While the commission was set up to address school shootings and reduce gun violence in schools, it has taken aim at guidance issued by the Obama administration in 2014 that sought to reduce the use of discriminatory and unsafe disciplinary practices against students. The 2014 guidance provided tools and recommendations for fair and effective school discipline practices that promote a positive and safe school climate and improve learning outcomes. In calling for the rescission of the guidance, the commission is putting the educational futures and safety of students at risk and destroying precisely what the commission declares is needed: “information about resources and best practices for improving school climate and learning outcomes.”
The 2014 guidance package urged schools to reduce the widespread and discriminatory use of “exclusionary discipline” – suspensions, expulsions and school-based arrests – for non-violent misbehavior in schools. The commission claims that the earlier guidance resulted in a “chilling effect on school discipline — and on the use of exclusionary school discipline,” which had “significant consequences for student and teacher safety.” The commission argues that the guidance should consequently be rescinded, so that teachers and local school leaders have the autonomy to suspend, expel and arrest students as they see fit.
But it is well documented that children across the country are being kicked out of class, restrained and arrested for minor misbehavior that does not pose a threat to school safety. And both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association decried the commission’s push to roll back the guidance to allow for the unfettered use of exclusionary discipline by their teachers. “It is shameful that the Trump administration is using the real risk of gun violence in our schools to strip vulnerable students of their civil rights, while doing nothing to keep all our students safe,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the NEA.
Close to 95% of out-of-school suspensions are for non-violent misbehavior. Shocking real-life examples include bringing ibuprofen to school, wearing the wrong color socks, tardiness and going to the bathroom. Worse yet is when the police are used to manage routine classroom misbehavior. In Florida, a 5-year-old girl was handcuffed by police for throwing a prolonged temper tantrum. A high school student in South Carolina was body slammed and tossed across the floor by a police officer after she refused to give up her cellphone.
No one disputes that schools should have the authority and ability to swiftly address behavior that is violent or unsafe for children. Yet the use of draconian school discipline measures that, according to the US Department of Education, largely impact students of color and students with disabilities for minor infractions are unnecessary, dangerous and educationally unsound. As the commission itself acknowledges, such measures can derail children’s education and make it more difficult for them to engage successfully and safely in school.
Children who are suspended or expelled are more likely to drop out, be held back or fall into the juvenile justice system, researchers say. And not surprisingly, children are ”more likely to behave, perform well academically, and make academic gains” when they have opportunities to learn and engage. They can’t do that if they’ve been removed from class. One study found that the higher the number of suspensions in school, the lower the reading and math scores were for non-suspended students. The finding challenges the idea that removing disruptive students will help others in the classroom learn.
Trump’s commission suggests that lowering the use of “exclusionary discipline” makes schools less safe. But research shows that schools with higher rates of suspensions and expulsions are not necessarily safer. When students are pushed out of class, the underlying cause of the misbehavior does not get addressed, and positive behavior and engagement is neither cultivated nor reinforced. Meanwhile, teachers and staff do not get enough of the training and resources they need to manage and maintain safe and inclusive classrooms.
Sadly, the use of exclusionary discipline in schools across the nation is common and widespread. In 2011, the Council of State Governments issued a report finding that nearly 6 out of 10 public school students in Texas had been suspended or expelled at least once between seventh and twelfth grade. African-American students and students with disabilities were disproportionately more likely to be removed from the classroom. Across the country, African-American students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, while students with disabilities are two times more likely to be suspended than their non-disabled peers.
The 2014 guidance was widely heralded and supported by schools, teachers, families and advocates working to promote safe schools that do not exclude or discard children of color and children with disabilities. The guidance gathered research and best practices from schools across the country and laid out what works to keep routine misbehavior from escalating into violence, and how to keep children engaged and safe in school. Schools began to revise and adopt new school discipline policies to promote safe and positive learning environments for all children.
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Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who chairs the federal commission, continue to play politics with our children’s lives. The critical and much-needed effort to address school shootings cannot be an excuse to allow thousands of students to be harshly punished for minor misbehavior, which could destroy their educational futures. Throwing out the 2014 guidance – which provides exactly what Trump and DeVos say that they are looking for – eliminates the chance for children to get the support and education they need while perpetuating the heinous cycle of violence. It will make our schools less safe. Now has long been the time to do better.