Watchdog report challenges Trump administration school safety recommendations

Table of Contents

Dive Brief:

  • The Government Accountability Office released a report calling into question the Trump administration’s overturning of Obama-era “Rethink School Discipline” guidance meant to curb the disproportionate impact of punitive school discipline policies on students of color. The guidance favored the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students over suspensions and expulsions in order to make school environments more equitable. 
  • In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice axed the “Dear Colleague” letter, shortly after President Donald Trump’s Federal Commission on School Safety released a report saying the Obama administration’s efforts to address racial disparities in school discipline policies made schools unsafe.
  • The GAO report debunks that claim, finding most school-targeted shootings take place in higher-income, low-minority areas, and that there was no research from 2009-2019 examining any connection between school discipline policies and school shootings. 

Dive Insight:

While the report found school-targeted shootings tend to occur in high-income, low-minority areas, it also found schools in urban, low-income and high-minority areas faced more shootings overall and were often committed by nonstudents or unknown shooters in response to disputes. 

However, suburban and rural, wealthier and low-minority schools had higher rates of suicide and school-targeted shootings, which had the highest fatalities per incident. More than half of the 166 fatalities studied were the result of such shootings.

Prior to the Education Department’s decision in 2018 to rescind the Obama-era guidance, more than 80 prominent state and district leaders, as well as education organizations, sent a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions requesting the federal guidance be left in place. The signatories, which included New York City Department of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza and the American Federation of Teachers, among others, said that based on studies, the decision to roll back protections would disproportionately impact students of color instead of making schools safer. 

In response to the GAO report’s findings, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, confirmed a similar notion in a statement, saying the Education Department’s “refusal to fully enforce federal civil rights law is based on rhetoric, not facts.” He added the Trump administration sent “the wrong and baseless message that schools are safest when they discriminate against students of color” when it overturned the 2014 guidance.

The Trump administration’s decision faced similar backlash from education organizations in 2018. “Unfortunately, the rescission is likely to foster the growth of racially discriminatory practices where implicit bias and other negative factors disproportionately impact students with disabilities and students of color, including the use of abusive practices such as seclusion and restraint,” said Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, in a statement at the time.

But despite the department’s decision to overturn the protections for students of color in 2018, a movement on the local level to end punitive disciplinary practices continued. That push has gained additional momentum in the wake of protests following George Floyd’s death, which is leading many districts to reexamine their disciplinary policies as well as relationships with school resource officers.

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