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.”