Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
Americans have grown all too familiar with the horror of school shootings. One of the worst ever, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead and provoked the state to tighten its gun laws. The tragedy and others like it have given parents cause to worry when they send their kids to school.
But mass shootings in schools are rare events. What’s more common is the daily danger from bullying, threats and violence that many students (and even teachers) face from disruptive students. This problem is far less lethal but can cause psychological as well as physical injury, not to mention its corrosive effect on learning.
After the Parkland shooting, President Donald Trump empaneled a federal commission on school safety. In late December, it issued a report stressing the need for the federal government to help local school districts address their respective discipline issues rather than dictating one-size-fits-all solutions. One of the chief recommendations was to revoke the previous administration’s guidance on racial differences in school discipline — which this commission judged to be attacking the wrong problem in the wrong way.
President Barack Obama’s Education Department, headed by Arne Duncan, noted that “African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended.” School districts were put on notice that evidence of “disparate impact” in disciplinary outcomes could trigger investigations of possible racial discrimination.
But why should it? More likely, actual differences in behavior account for the gap. “According to federal data,” Manhattan Institute analyst Heather Mac Donald noted in City Journal, “black students self-reported being in a physical fight at school at over twice the rate of white students in 2015.” In California, black fifth-graders are five times more likely than whites to be chronically truant.
Mac Donald’s point wasn’t to say that race determines conduct. She was helping to explain how factors outside school may influence conduct inside school. African-American youngsters are more likely to grow up in poverty, in single-parent homes and in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Such conditions are bound to have a detrimental effect on the behavior of some students, which likely accounts for the racial gap in discipline.
The Obama administration guidance had discouraged schools from removing students who are violent or seriously disruptive. But the new commission cited Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, who expressed the view that “some school leaders have chosen to avoid potential Office of Civil Rights investigations by eliminating the use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, without considering the impact that such practices have on school safety.”
In Oklahoma City, an American Federation of Teachers survey found that 36 percent of teachers said student offenses had become more frequent under a policy aimed at curbing suspensions. In Madison, Wisconsin, suspensions declined by 13 percent between 2013 and 2018, the Wisconsin State Journal reports, but “bad student behavior in Madison schools nearly doubled.”
What’s easy to forget in the focus on those who are disciplined is the effect of their conduct on everyone else. In schools that are mostly black, the victims of students who engage in violent or disruptive behavior also are mostly black. When disruptive students of any ethnicity are removed from the classroom, teachers are better able to help kids who want to learn.
By rescinding the old guidance, the Trump administration will empower local school administrators and teachers to craft and enforce discipline policies that are fair to every student. A safe school, after all, should be considered a civil right.