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School Safety in 2020: What Events from the Last Decade Taught Us about K-12 Discipline

January 6, 2020

January 6, 2020
By Jonathan Butcher

Last year, police arrested a sixth grade student at DeGrazia Elementary School in southern Arizona’s Marana Unified School District. Another student accused the first child of threatening to “shoot up” the school. School officials wrote a letter to families and said “there is no threat against our school” (emphasis in the original), but the incident reveals the complex contours of the student discipline debate in public schools around the country.

Questions abound: If there was “no threat” against the school, why was such a young student arrested instead of sanctioned a different way—say, suspension? Law enforcement officers released the student to his parents after the arrest, but should the student be allowed back to the same school?

This two-part blog series will explain the mistakes from failed school safety policies promulgated from Washington and how administrative requirements that limit educators’ ability to suspend or expel students put other children in danger.

Student safety is vital to every parent, and state and federal officials are providing more money to schools for safety-related programs such as security personnel and counseling services. Recently, the Arizona Board of Education awarded 400 Arizona schools with school safety grant funding, a program that saw a $20 million increase this year. In October, the U.S. Department of Justice gave Arizona $2.5 million in federal grants “to help prevent school violence,” part of $85 million in grants to states.

With so much attention on school safety and greater spending on security measures and student mental health programs, the research findings and lessons from school safety policies in states and school districts are extremely relevant to policymakers today.

Statistically, shootings on K-12 campuses are rare. As my colleagues at The Heritage Foundation have noted, “an average of 10 students are killed every year by gunfire at school,” and while any number above 0 is too many, some 800 students “die every year during regular travel to and from school.”

Yet the tragic incidents at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Fla., in February 2018—followed in relatively quick succession by a similar shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas—reminded families of other disasters at K-12 schools, such as the lives lost nearly a decade ago in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Last year, Axios reported that a survey of 14- to 29-year olds in five cities, including Parkland, Fla., in Broward County, found that 68 percent of respondents said school shootings “are the most important issue facing the U.S,” with one headline reading “School Shootings are This Generation’s 9/11.”

However, Washington should not be designing and then mandating school safety and student discipline rules for local schools. At the end of 2018, a federal task force rescinded a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) issued under the Obama administration that coerced schools to limit student suspension and expulsion (also known as “exclusionary discipline”). The DCL included directives from the federal Office of Civil Rights that incentivized schools to focus on school discipline data, arguably at the expense of student safety. Andrew Pollack, father of one of the victims of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, and the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden examined this connection in Why Meadow Died, a detailed account of the fatal incident.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post found examples of K-12 schools in the District of Columbia that expelled students “without calling it a suspension and in some cases even marked them present.” Local media have reported similar data manipulation in Newark, New Jersey, and Miami, Florida.

Despite the rescission of the federal letter, many school districts still limit exclusionary discipline, including some of the largest districts in the country such as Los Angeles Unified School District and Oklahoma City and the entire state of Washington. These policies attempt to lower the high rates of suspension and expulsion among minority students, but as the second installment of this blog post will demonstrate, the policies can result in administrators leaving disruptive and sometimes dangerous students in the classroom.

And according to Politico, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said recently that she wants to reinstate federal policies that limit exclusionary discipline, so policies that limit school discipline have powerful advocates in Washington.

Every child should have a safe place to learn. In the second part of this post, research will demonstrate why policymakers should give parents, teachers, and educators who interact with students regularly the authority to protect children. Manipulating discipline rates without regard to student behavior is nothing short of dangerous.

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute. A portion of this analysis can be found in Jonathan’s testimony before the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on November 19, 2019.



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