Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times/Polaris
Georgia Davis-Bonk,13, an 8th grader at Millikan Middle School in Los Angeles, at a March 11, 2018 protest in Studio City to demand more gun legislation and declare that, "We are all Parkland students."

It is perhaps not surprising that sooner or later President Donald Trump and other conservative lawmakers would find a way to link former President Barack Obama in some fashion to the Parkland school massacre.

The only surprise is that it took almost a month for that to happen.

Culprit Number 1: Federal guidelines issued jointly by the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education and a similar office in the Justice Department in 2014 “to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination in school discipline.” Also implicated is the Rethinking Discipline report issued in December 2016, just weeks before President Obama left office, promoting policies “to support all students and promote a welcome and safe climate in schools.”

So instead of following through on promises to support historic gun regulations eschewed by the National Rifle Association, Trump has established a Federal Commission on School Safety, to be headed by his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, to come up with proposals for school violence prevention that includes “repeal of the Obama administration’s ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies.”

This could open up another zone of conflict with California, which has made reducing suspensions and expulsions — and related policies very similar to those now being targeted by the Trump administration — an integral part of the state’s new school accountability system. California schools will be rated on their ability to reduce suspension and expulsion rates and to narrow the differences in suspension rates of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. California has also barred using a vague category of “willful defiance” for suspending students in K-3 grades. All these policies have resulted in a dramatic decline in suspension and expulsion rates in the state.

But unhappiness with Obama’s school discipline policies have been brewing long before the Florida school shooting. In December, for example, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, chaired by Catherine Lhamon, who headed the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights under President Obama, held what turned into a rancorous hearing on alternative discipline policies. Many presenters spoke out in favor of alternative discipline practices such as restorative justice. But these practices also came under attack from a range of sources.

For example, Gail Heriot, a commission member and law professor at the University of San Diego, said the guidelines have created “chaotic classrooms” and labelled them “wrong-headed.” The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden said the guidelines have created “a school climate catastrophe and puts more students at risk.”

Heriot has long rejected the argument that racial discrimination has anything to with disparate suspension and expulsion rates. “It is unlikely that anything other than differing rates of misbehavior contribute significantly to the differing rates of discipline,” she wrote in 2012.  “Those who claim to have demonstrated that discrimination and racism are at work are simply scandalmongering.”

In the same week of the commission hearing, the issue took center stage at the hearing for Kenneth Marcus, Trump’s nominee to head the Office of Civil Rights formerly headed by Lhamon — although Marcus seemed largely sympathetic to the need to target disproportionate suspension rates.

And then on March 5, within a week of the Parkland shooting, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week charging that Obama’s policies on school discipline “may have contributed to systemic failures to report Nikolas Cruz’s dangerous behaviors to local law enforcement.”

The reasoning runs something along these lines: If school officials had turned in the alleged shooter to police while he was still a student at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School then the massacre could have been prevented. The implication is that because the school had embraced alternative discipline practices promoted by the Obama administration, he avoided being arrested by police.

What seems especially to rankle critics of Obama’s focus on disproportionate suspension rates is the suggestion that students are being treated differently because of their racial or ethnic background. In her 60 Minutes interview on Sunday night, DeVos seemed to reject the notion that school discipline practices that result in black students being expelled at several times the rate of white students have anything to do with race. “Arguably, all of this issue comes down to individual kids,” she told interviewer Leslie Stahl.

Getting less attention in the policy conflict so far is that the Obama guidelines are intended to discourage suspensions and expulsions. But Nikolas Cruz was actually expelled from the Stoneman Douglas school when he was a student there. It’s possible that if the school had been able to figure out a better way to help him deal with his problems short of expulsion — as urged by the Obama-era guidelines — perhaps the Parkland massacre could have been avoided.  At the same time, the school appeared to be driven by safety concerns in expelling Cruz — and did manage to avert any injury to his fellow students while he was enrolled there.

Also ignored is the fact that Parkland police were called dozens of times — 39 times according to some reports — by Cruz’s neighbors and others who knew him and the family  So police were well aware he was a potential threat. It is unclear what else the school could have done to alert police when they were already alerted.

It is also not known whether police were consulted by school authorities before he was expelled and felt they could do nothing for any number of reasons.  The FBI was also contacted with a specific warning that he might commit a school shooting. But it failed to follow up, admitting that “protocols were not followed.”

Yet President Trump and others like Sen. Rubio are now trying to link a school massacre to school discipline policies intended to create a “safe climate” in the nation’s schools. The common thread is one that underlies almost every policy action taken by the Trump administration: President Obama had something to do with at least one side of the equation.

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  1. Chuck 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    There are several comments posted here from obvious Trump haters who claim to see no connection between the PROMISE program and the Parkland shooting, so I will simplify it for them. Thanks to the PROMISE program numerous criminal and violent acts of the shooter were never entered into the law enforcement database. The resulting “clean” record allowed Nikolas Cruz to pass the mandatory background check and easily, legally purchase the murder weapon(s). The fact … Read More

    There are several comments posted here from obvious Trump haters who claim to see no connection between the PROMISE program and the Parkland shooting, so I will simplify it for them.
    Thanks to the PROMISE program numerous criminal and violent acts of the shooter were never entered into the law enforcement database. The resulting “clean” record allowed Nikolas Cruz to pass the mandatory background check and easily, legally purchase the murder weapon(s).
    The fact that the PROMISE program was implemented by Obama is not relevant, but by adding that contentious tidbit to the headline it becomes better click-bait. IMO, the program’s actual intent is also not relevant to this matter; but tragically, the real consequences of the implementation of the PROMISE program for Cruz resulted in 17 deaths and multiple injuries.
    This is not an “anti-Obama” issue, it is however a deadly example of “The road to hell being paved with good intentions”.

  2. Chuck 2 months ago2 months ago

    Exactly what are the “historic gun regulations eschewed by the National Rifle Association”?
    The NRA supports common-sense background checks. Or, are you referring to the expired and senseless attempt to ban the most popular small-bore hunting rifle which has been in use for almost 60 years, but is very rarely used by criminals?

  3. Lou 3 months ago3 months ago

    White kids are suspended at a higher rate than Asian kids. Is that race related?

    Replies

    • Chuck 2 months ago2 months ago

      The discrepancy couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that, in general, children of families of Asian decent are less likely exhibit disruptive or criminal behavior, because the Asian culture places a very high value on respect, and education.
      “Progressive think” is that there are no cultural differences so there cannot be behavioral differences either. Of course the progressives have now begun to preach that race itself is not even a “thing”.

  4. Roger Grotewold 3 months ago3 months ago

    The association of the previous POTUS having anything to do with this terrible crime is the epitome of the ignorance displayed this past year by the present administration. This is too much to swallow in one gulp and is ignorance to the highest degree possible.

  5. Murvin Enders 3 months ago3 months ago

    It’s really sad when “wanna be leaders” hide their ignorance by blaming others. Rubio and Trump deserve each other but Florida and America deserve better!

  6. Jonathan Raymond 3 months ago3 months ago

    I’ve been an outspoken critic of Obama era education policies and initiatives from the heavy-handed manipulation of the common core standards to the millions of dollars squandered by poorly thought out programs like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants. But lets give credit where it is due. By “Rethinking School Discipline Practices,” Obama, and specifically, Catherine Lhamon, recognized that the culture and climate in schools and classrooms matters big time for student … Read More

    I’ve been an outspoken critic of Obama era education policies and initiatives from the heavy-handed manipulation of the common core standards to the millions of dollars squandered by poorly thought out programs like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants. But lets give credit where it is due. By “Rethinking School Discipline Practices,” Obama, and specifically, Catherine Lhamon, recognized that the culture and climate in schools and classrooms matters big time for student learning. Schools and classrooms that enable kids to have a presence and voice, that allow them to follow their learning interests, that enable them to demonstrate their mastery through performance, that are staffed by adults that support and push them, and that are safe, make a difference for kids.
    Anyone that has ever run a school or school district knows that minority kids, particularly young men of color, are disproportionately suspended and expelled. And the consequences for these kids are disasterous. It’s not about “individual kids” or “differing rates of misbehavior. It’s about a systematic failure of our public education system to give children the education that he or she needs. And it starts with a vision. What the feds attempted to do, and what California is embracing, is a movement from the No Child to the Whole Child. Advancing Whole Child education is a vision the feds could embrace and the Trump administration and Senator Rubio would be wise to learn.

  7. el 3 months ago3 months ago

    Is that really the headline y'all wanted to go with? I don't see any link between the intent or practice of the new guidelines with the shooter's case, and your article doesn't seem to think so either, but that's not what the headline implies. Given how many people won't read the article past the headline, it could unintentionally have the effect of getting people to believe that there is a link after all. Read More

    Is that really the headline y’all wanted to go with? I don’t see any link between the intent or practice of the new guidelines with the shooter’s case, and your article doesn’t seem to think so either, but that’s not what the headline implies.

    Given how many people won’t read the article past the headline, it could unintentionally have the effect of getting people to believe that there is a link after all.