Washington Should Allow Schools to Set Student Safety Policies

Testimony Education

Washington Should Allow Schools to Set Student Safety Policies

September 21, 2018 26 min read
butcher
Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Education Policy
Jonathan Butcher serves as Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

It is not the federal government’s responsibility to set student codes of conduct for K-12 public schools. School leaders must be able to develop guidelines that keep students safe, and school personnel should be prepared to discipline students when they put others in danger. 

Key Takeaways

The “Dear Colleague” letter on student discipline issued in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice should be rescinded.

School safety policies and student discipline guidelines should prioritize safety, not school reporting requirements about exclusionary discipline.

Teachers and school personnel must have the authority to deal with student misbehavior in order to protect all of the students in a classroom.

Testimony before the
United States Department of Education

August 28, 2018

Jonathan Butcher

Senior Policy Analyst

The Heritage Foundation

My name is Jonathan Butcher. I am Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation. The views I express in this testimony are my own and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation.

Families around the country were horrified at the events of February 14, 2018. Every parent wants their child to be safe, and an incident such as this is a family’s worst fear. To the parents, students and other members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School community, my deepest sympathies.

Now that we are six months away from the tragedy, the relationship between Washington’s school safety directives and Broward County, Florida’s safety policies, along with similar student discipline and safety procedures in schools around the country, should be reconsidered.

The Federal Commission on School Safety should recommend that the “Dear Colleague” letter on student discipline issued in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice be rescinded. Providing specific directives on school safety and student discipline is well beyond the scope of the U.S. Department of Education’s—or any federal office’s—authority.

The letter’s provisions mirror Broward County’s student discipline policies in its “PROMISE” manual—policies that try to limit student suspensions and expulsions (also called “exclusionary discipline”). School safety policies and student discipline guidelines should prioritize safety, not school reporting requirements about exclusionary discipline.

The resemblance between PROMISE and the federal Dear Colleague letter is unmistakable. Like PROMISE, adopted by Broward County in 2013, the federal letter encourages restorative justice practices, emphasizes limiting student engagement with the police, and says suspensions and expulsions should only be used as a last resort. Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie even said that his district’s ideas inspired the guidance.[1]

The federal letter also encourages school districts to have a memorandum of agreement with local law enforcement committing the agencies to working together to limit student interaction with the justice system. The Broward County School Board and local police, along with the Chief Judge of the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, the Office of the State Attorney, and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice signed such an agreement in 2013 and updated the memo in 2016.[2]

Again, this Broward memo stresses the idea of preventing students from coming into contact with law enforcement. The agreement says that even in “emergency” situations that require law enforcement involvement, before any arrest is made, those involved should “ensure the…least punitive means of discipline is being employed.”[3]

After the events of February 14, Runcie defended PROMISE. He said attempts to criticize limiting suspensions and expulsions “goes with the whole narrative that anything under the Obama administration is no good and we have to get rid of it.”[4]

Repeatedly, Runcie denied that the alleged shooter had been referred to PROMISE. Then, in May, district officials announced that the alleged shooter had been referred to PROMISE—reversing their earlier statement. But they had no record of the alleged shooter’s attendance or that anyone involved in PROMISE had followed up on the alleged shooter’s participation in the program.

Thus, officials cannot even report how or if the safety net Broward officials created to deal with disruptive student behavior was able to intervene with a troubled student.

PROMISE and the federal letter share many of the same approaches to student safety. Today, districts such as Oklahoma City (Oklahoma’s largest district), Los Angeles, Syracuse, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, to name just a few, have adopted the measures outlined in the 2014 federal letter.[5]

Some empirical research on the effects of limiting exclusionary discipline is suggestive of negative student outcomes. A working paper analysis of Los Angeles students found that limiting exclusionary discipline had a negative effect on student achievement.[6]

In Philadelphia, where researchers say school compliance with policies to limit exclusionary discipline varies widely across the district, researchers found either no changes in academic achievement or negative effects among the peers of students involved in discipline-related incidents.[7] Authors write, “One reasonable interpretation of these results is that a policy change prohibiting the use of conduct suspensions has more negative consequences for peers in schools that serve more disruptive students—perhaps because the marginal student who returns to the classroom is more disruptive.”[8]

One of the authors of this study, Dr. Matthew P. Steinberg of the University of Pennsylvania, says, “Much of the differences in school discipline meted out to minority students…is explained at the school level.”[9] He says the evidence that “can lend itself to causal conclusions” on the causes and consequences of exclusionary discipline is “thin.” He says, “We really need to think about targeted responses at the school level” and

 

“Much of what we know about that school-level effect, has to do with the fact that it has long been known that the ways in which we sort students into schools tends to be based on residential location. Particularly in urban schooling contexts, we know that residential location, particularly for minority students, means that these students are coming from neighborhoods with higher crime rates, higher poverty, quite a bit more trauma and what we are doing is sorting these students into the same schools and really concentrating disadvantage and therefore likely concentrating behavioral issues within the same school, and, as a result we may be seeing higher rates of school discipline.”[10]
 

Teacher surveys also find that educators do not feel safer when school personnel limit exclusionary discipline. Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Max Eden writes,
 

In Oklahoma City, 60 percent of teachers say offending behavior increased since the letter came out (11 percent say it decreased). In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 60 percent say they’ve experienced an increase in violence or threats and 41 percent say they don’t feel safe at work… In Santa Ana, California, 65 percent of teachers say it’s not working. In Hillsborough, Florida, 65 percent of teachers say it doesn’t improve school climate. In Jackson, 62 percent of teachers say they don’t have adequate alternatives to detentions and suspensions.[11]

 

Notably, a nationally representative survey finds that the public does not support limiting suspensions or expulsions. In a 2015 survey, 50 percent of respondents opposed school district policies that limit suspensions and expulsions.[12]Just 19 percent were in favor of such ideas. Respondents reported nearly identical levels of opposition and support when asked if they favored federal policies that limit discipline (51 percent v. 21 percent). Response rates were similar when the question was asked in the 2018 edition of the survey.[13]

No student should be punished for the color of their skin, but teachers and school personnel must have the authority to deal with student misbehavior in order to protect all of the students in a classroom.

The 2014 Dear Colleague letter states that the Office of Civil Rights would initiate investigations of schools based on compliance with the letter.[14] R. Shep Melnick, Ph.D., the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., Professor of American Politics at Boston College, said in an interview with Education Next, “What school district wants to ignore [a federal Dear Colleague letter] and be charged with violating the law? School districts are looking for certainty.”[15] Yet it is not the federal government’s responsibility to set student codes of conduct for K-12 public schools.School leaders must be able to develop guidelines that keep students safe, and school personnel should be prepared to discipline students when they put others in danger.

 

 

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Members of The Heritage Foundation staff testify as individuals discussing their own independent research. The views expressed are their own and do not reflect an institutional position for The Heritage Foundation or its board of trustees.

 

[1]Kim Greene, “Leadership Profile: Robert Runcie,” Scholastic.com, Summer 2014,http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3758419.

[2]Broward County School Board et al., “Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline,” October 5, 2016,https://www.browardprevention.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Fully-Executed-Collaborative-Agreement.pdf.

[3]Broward County School Board et al., p. 6.

[4]Michael Stratford, “Trump School Safety Plan Targets Obama Discipline Directive,” Politico Morning Education, March 13, 2018,https://www.politico.com/newsletters/morning-education/2018/03/13/trump-school-safety-plan-targets-obama-discipline-directive-130118.

[5]News release, “Educators Gather at the White House to Rethink School Discipline,” U.S. Department of Education, July 22, 2015,https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/educators-gather-white-house-rethink-school-discipline.

[6]Zarecki, Dominic, Banning Progress: Suspension Bans and Schoolwide Academic Growth (May 3, 2018). Available at SSRN:https://ssrn.com/abstract=3176650.

[7]Matthew P. Steinberg and Johanna Lacoe, “The Academic and Behavioral Consequences of Discipline Policy Reform: Evidence from Philadelphia,” The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, December 5, 2017,https://edexcellence.net/publications/discipline-reform-philadelphia.

[8]Steinberg and Lacoe, “The Academic and Behavioral Consequences of Discipline Policy Reform: Evidence from Philadelphia.”

[9]Education Next podcast, “What Does the Research Say about School Discipline Policies?” Ep. 56, October 12, 2016,https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/ep-56-oct-12-2016-what-does-research-say-about-school/id1063838014?i=1000376510799&mt=2; see also,Matthew Steinberg and Johanna Lacoe, “What do we know about school discipline reform? Assessing the alternatives to suspensions and expulsions,”Education Next, Winter 2017,https://www.educationnext.org/what-do-we-know-about-school-discipline-reform-suspensions-expulsions/.

[10]Education Next podcast, “What Does the Research Say about School Discipline Policies?”

[11]Max Eden, “Teachers Nationwide Say Obama’s Discipline ‘Reform’ Put Them in Danger. So Why Are the Unions Fighting DeVos on Repeal?”The 74, April 2, 2018,https://www.the74million.org/article/eden-teachers-nationwide-say-obamas-discipline-reform-put-them-in-danger-so-why-are-the-unions-fighting-devos-on-repeal/.

[12]Michael B. Henderson, et al,Education Next 2015 Poll, Winter 2016,https://www.educationnext.org/2015-ednext-poll-school-reform-opt-out-common-core-unions/.

[13]Albert Cheng, et al,Education Next 2018 Poll, Winter 2019,https://www.educationnext.org/2018-ednext-poll-interactive/.

[14]U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education, Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline, January 8, 2014, Appendix,https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201401-title-vi.pdf.

[15]Education Next podcast, “New Role for the Office of Civil Rights?” Ep. 78, March 29, 2017,https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/ep-78-march-29-2017-new-role-for-the-office-for-civil-rights/id1063838014?i=1000383251348&mt=2.

Authors

butcher
Jonathan Butcher

Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Education Policy