The U.S. Department of Education Should Rescind 2014 Federal School-Discipline Guidance

Report Education

The U.S. Department of Education Should Rescind 2014 Federal School-Discipline Guidance

March 28, 2018 12 min read Download Report
Will Skillman Senior Research Fellow in Education Policy
Jonathan is the Will Skillman Senior Research Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.


In the wake of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida, on February 14, President Trump’s Administration announced a new Federal Commission on School Safety. The commission’s directives include consideration of the repeal of school-discipline guidelines that President Obama’s Administration issued in a 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter. This federal guidance mirrors Broward County policies. At least six large school districts were following the guidance by 2015, and one report finds that at least 50 districts are participating today. Washington should not direct individual school-discipline policies, and the new federal commission should rescind the 2014 letter.

Key Takeaways

The February 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, was a tragedy affecting the lives of everyone connected to Broward County schools.

Washington’s response matters because federal guidelines for school discipline in a 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter are similar to Broward County’s policies.

The U.S. Department of Education should rescind the 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter on school discipline.

The Parkland school shooting was a heartbreaking, devastating tragedy. On February 14, former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Nikolas Cruz allegedly fired at the school, killing 14 students and three school personnel.REF Cruz wounded at least 14 others. As reports uncovered more information about the accused shooter and his actions, the story became even graver: Cruz was an orphan with a history of troubling behavior.REF Today, families and policymakers must cope with this tragedy, and part of this recovery requires study of the school safety policies that were in place at the time of the disaster.

In 2013, Broward County School District, home to two of Cruz’s former schools—Stoneman Douglas High School and Westglades Middle School—launched a high-profile school-safety program, Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Support & Education (PROMISE).REF PROMISE received national attention, including praise from the Obama Administration.REF

PROMISE is a school safety initiative with the goals of providing “safe, secure and supportive environments for all students” and reducing “external suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.”REF PROMISE attempted to prevent students from entering the juvenile justice system.REF

The policies rely on restorative justice strategies, which “provide opportunities for students to be accountable to those they have harmed, and enable them to repair the harm they caused.”REF The interventions are “tiered,” and individuals from different offices including school personnel and counselors and law enforcement engage with a participating student at various points to respond to a student’s action.REF Local offices involved with student discipline, including law enforcement, agreed to “uniformity” in handling student misbehavior as they tried to provide a “safe” learning environment and limit the use of suspension, expulsion, and arrests.REF In fact, local law enforcement and individuals in the justice system signed a memorandum of agreement with the Broward County School District outlining how the offices would work together to carry out PROMISE.REF

Despite this commitment to safety, PROMISE and those who agreed to collaborate on school discipline issues using PROMISE failed to prevent the Parkland tragedy. Now, families, teachers, and policymakers are casting a critical eye toward this school-discipline policy.REF

PROMISE and Nikolas Cruz

According to reports, Cruz was never referred to PROMISE or arrested, but a review of Cruz’s record and PROMISE’s guidelines suggest he may have engaged in PROMISE-eligible offenses. This activity raises questions about the relationship between the accused shooter and district policies.

According to a Washington Post timeline, Cruz left Westglades Middle School with a record that included 26 “disciplinary incidents.”REF In 2016, while enrolled at Douglas High School, he made a threat online saying he “planned to shoot up the school.”REF Law enforcement provided this information to school officials. Notably, PROMISE includes threats as a behavior meriting intervention through the program, yet Cruz was not referred.REF

Cruz also allegedly committed assault at Douglas High School in 2017, another action listed in the PROMISE matrix.REF Still, Broward officials say they have “no record of Nikolas Cruz committing a PROMISE-eligible infraction or being assigned the PROMISE while in high school [sic].”REF

Furthermore, despite years of misbehavior, Cruz was never arrested or expelled, according to the Miami Herald.REF CNN reports that law enforcement received 45 calls between 2008 and 2017 “related to the Cruz home, Nikolas Cruz or his brother.”REF The Washington Post and USA Today report that by the time of the tragedy, Cruz had acted in such ways that school officials, law enforcement, state welfare agency officials, the FBI, and school counselors had been involved in or notified of Cruz’s actions at different points in time.REF

The collaborative agreement that Broward officials signed in 2016 demonstrates that agencies were working together to implement PROMISE. Again, while one of PROMISE’s goals is safety (“The foundation of the PROMISE program” is “respect for community safety”), another is reducing “suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.”REF Even in cases of “emergency” that “require the immediate involvement of law enforcement,” law enforcement, justice officials, and school personnel agreed to “ensure…[that] the least punitive means of discipline is being deployed.”REF

Parents and policymakers can ask, then, what constitutes a PROMISE-eligible infraction and why was Cruz not referred?

Federal Response to Parkland

Sun-Sentinel writer Ryan Nicol says, “It will be up to Broward County School Board members and other officials to determine what role the PROMISE program played in the Parkland tragedy, and whether schools are more dangerous because of it.”REF Parents, school personnel, and policymakers around the country should reflect on this question, given that Washington's 2014 guidelines on school discipline policy bear some of the same characteristics as Broward’s policies.REF

In 2014, the Obama Administration issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to all public schools with instructions on how to “reduce disruption” without discriminating against students according to “personal characteristics.”REF The letter was in response to data demonstrating that minority students were more likely than their peers to be disciplined in school.REF Indeed, no one should face discipline based on his or her race. However, Washington not only condemned such acts but issued recommendations to local schools for disciplining students that do not include suspension, expulsion, or law enforcement involvement.REF

The letter gives school officials specific guidelines to use in designing school discipline policies.REF Such policies are demonstrably similar to PROMISE (see appendix).REF The PROMISE agreement signed by law enforcement and the school district, the PROMISE guidelines, and the 2014 federal guidance have similar theoretical and practical ideas on school discipline: All of the documents call for a signed agreement between school officials and law enforcement on school safety; the use of restorative justice; and limiting the use of out-of-school placements (suspension or expulsion), the judicial system, and law enforcement in school discipline.REF

Furthermore, White House press releases, Broward County school and law enforcement officials’ statements, and district and White House documents strengthen the connection between PROMISE and the 2014 federal guidance.REF

In 2014, Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie told, “Some of my staff joke that the Obama administration might have taken our policies and framework and developed them into national guidelines…. What we’ve got is very aligned with that. We went out early on.”REF In January 2018, the Broad Center (an education and school leadership organization) reported that “the Obama administration took notice” of PROMISE and “PROMISE informed the White House’s guidance on student disciplinary practices nationwide.”REF

The Obama Administration would later praise Broward County for its school discipline policies, and stated in a 2015 press release that the district had “made progress in transforming policies and school climate to support student learning.”REF Then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised restorative justice activities and Runcie in 2015, saying, “So I’m very, very pleased with their work. We did a White House school discipline summit very recently and both districts [Broward and Miami-Dade] were there.”REF

Following the 2014 federal school discipline guidance, schools across the country began using these federal guidelines. At least six large school districts were following the guidance by 2015, with schools in at least another five states participating today.REF One report finds that at least 50 school districts have adopted these policies.REF

A tragic combination of personal, family, social, law enforcement, and judicial actors and circumstances share responsibility for the tragedy at Douglas High School, but that does not exonerate federal guidelines based on the types of policies in PROMISE—policies being used by other schools across the U.S.


On March 12, President Donald Trump’s Administration announced that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would lead a new Federal Commission on School Safety.REF The Administration asked the committee to make recommendations regarding violence prevention strategies, including the repeal of the 2014 federal school discipline guidelines. Earlier this month, Senator Marco Rubio (R–FL) sent a letter to Secretary DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions calling for an inquiry into the same guidelines.REF

Media outlets such as Politico and The New York Times have reported criticism of the Trump Administration’s call for repeal of this letter.REF Critics say the 2014 federal guidance is “an unrelated issue” and “there’s no evidence to suggest that those policies had anything to do with the massacre.”REF

Yet PROMISE and 2014 federal school discipline guidance share similar approaches to school discipline and limiting suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.REF Reports of how district and law enforcement officials operating under PROMISE failed to intervene are troubling. Other school systems have adopted measures based on the federal guidance, making a repeal of the federal guidance a relevant and appropriate response to the Broward County tragedy.

—Jonathan Butcher is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Education Policy, of the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation.

IB4833 Appendix Table 1 p 1

IB4833 Appendix Table 1 p 2


Jonathan Butcher

Will Skillman Senior Research Fellow in Education Policy