Schooled Reporting on education

School discipline vs. school safety

Education | Has Obama-era guidance designed to close the racial disparity gap in punishing students created classroom chaos?
by Leigh Jones
Posted 4/25/18, 03:14 pm

A report released by the U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday did little to resolve the debate about racial disparities in school discipline cases and how potential solutions affect campus safety.

According to the latest school discipline numbers, minority students continue to face discipline at higher rates than their white classmates. African-American students suffer especially harsh punishment. While they only made up 15 percent of students during the 2015-16 school year, African-American children accounted for 31 percent of students referred to police or arrested. African-American boys account for 8 percent of all students but 25 percent of suspensions and 23 percent of expulsions.

Under the Obama administration, the Education Department directed schools to fix the disparity or face penalties, including the possible revocation of federal funding. It urged school leaders to replace penalties like suspension and expulsion for all students with strategies designed to keep kids in school, emphasizing the importance of counseling.

Critics say that approach makes teachers and other students less safe and disrupts the learning environment.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos held a listening session earlier this month with experts from both sides but has yet to announce a decision about continuing or rescinding the Obama-era directive. National teachers unions support the new approach but not all educators agree.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, who attended the meeting with DeVos, compiled poll results from local teachers unions, whose members are much less enthusiastic about the push to do away with traditional forms of discipline. In Oklahoma City, 60 percent of teachers said discipline problems got worse after the new rules went into effect. In Baton Rouge, La., 60 percent of teachers said they experienced an increase in violence or threats. Eden cited many more examples, although the numbers are admittedly a scattershot look at how teachers feel about the issue. But he noted an obsession with statistics, absent any contextual analysis, always results in poor decisions.

“The message is that when the federal government says, ‘You better get these numbers down,’ they are going to go down, and the easiest way to do that is to not punish bad behavior or hide it when you do,” Eden said after the meeting.

And the fix-the-numbers-at-all-cost approach can have fatal consequences.

Education officials in Broward County, Fla., became some of the biggest supporters of the counseling-not-discipline approach, with disastrous results, some say. On Feb. 14, former student Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, immediately raising questions about whether school officials had adequately assessed him as a potential threat.

Broward officials called Cruz an outlier, but according to an analysis by RealClearInvestigations, he’s just the most extreme example of a pervasive problem.

Broward County has the highest percentage of “the most serious, violent [and] chronic” juvenile offenders in Florida, according to the county’s chief juvenile probation officer. Under the softer discipline plan adopted in 2013, education officials encouraged local police and sheriff’s deputies not to arrest students for “nonviolent” offenses, which could include assault, theft, vandalism, drugs, and public fighting. That approach extended off campus, with Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel agreeing to send students to the restorative justice program, rather than arresting them.

One student who survived the Stoneman Douglas attack has sued district officials and Israel over that policy, claiming they knew Cruz posed a danger but continued to let him come to school for too long. Anthony Borges, 15, suffered five gunshot wounds and endured nine surgeries in the six weeks after the shooting. In announcing his lawsuit, Borges asked the district and local law enforcement agencies to end their “no-arrest” policy. Through his attorney, Borges thanked Israel and Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie for visiting him in the hospital. Then he offered a stinging rebuke: “I want to say that both of you failed us, students, teachers and parents alike, on so many levels.”

Associated Press/Photo by Ross D. Franklin Associated Press/Photo by Ross D. Franklin Elementary school teacher Nanette Swanson demonstrates outside Tuscano Elementary School in Phoenix on April 11.

Poll shows support for teacher pay raises

As teachers in several states stage walkouts and rallies to air pay and classroom funding grievances, a new poll shows a majority of Americans sympathize with their plight. Overall, 78 percent of respondents said teachers don’t get paid enough, according to the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.

But only 50 percent said they would be willing to pay more taxes to give teachers a raise. Still, support for better education funding crosses party lines, with nearly 90 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents, and 66 percent of Republicans saying educator salaries are too low.

Last week, Arizona teachers voted to stage a statewide walkout on Thursday, but organizers say the student holiday could last longer: Teachers may stay out of the classroom until state legislators meet their demands. Last week, Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, vetoed 10 bills to urge lawmakers to rework the state budget to include teacher pay raises. He pledged earlier to give educators a 20 percent pay increase by 2020, but walkout organizers wanted improvements to classroom funding as well.

Meanwhile, teachers in Colorado also plan to walk off the job again this week to protest low pay. They have organized rallies for Thursday and Friday at the state Capitol in Denver to call for a long-term commitment to better education funding. —L.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Maria Danilova Associated Press/Photo by Maria Danilova Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hugs students at Ashland Elementary School in Manassas, Va., on Wednesday.

Betsy DeVos talks education at the Pentagon

School choice advocates had high hopes for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ meeting last week with Defense Department officials. But DeVos did not discuss specific choice legislation with the Pentagon brass, a disappointment for those who want the Trump administration to back a plan to offer education savings accounts to military families.

Policy experts at the Heritage Foundation have proposed using federal Impact Aid funds to start the program, but few lawmakers, even among Republicans, support the idea of taking money away from already struggling schools. The Impact Aid program provides funding for schools on American Indian reservations, military bases, and nearby public campuses that educate students from military families.

Although a recent survey showed military families generally want more education choice and cite frustration over their children’s schooling as a top reason for reconsidering military careers, advocacy groups aren’t on board. The Military Coalition, a group of 32 organizations representing more than 5.5 million service personnel, oppose using Impact Aid funds for anything but public education. —L.J.

Temporary homeschool reprieve in California

A California state lawmaker has dropped an attempt to require homeschooling parents to get teaching certifications and allow state officials to conduct regular health and safety inspections. But advocates at the Home School Legal Defense Association say California home educators aren’t yet in the clear. A revised bill would establish a committee to study homeschooling and recommend new state regulations that could include minimum requirements for instructors and curriculum standards. The renewed oversight push started after the discovery of a horrific child abuse case in Riverside County, a rare situation that’s even less common among homeschoolers, according to statistics. —L.J.

Embracing educational choice

Don’t miss this PBS NewsHour report on increasing interest in homeschooling among African-American families. —L.J.

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Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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