Linking a school massacre to Obama-era school discipline policies

March 13, 2018

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."

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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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