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Four Things to Watch For in the Trump School Safety Report

By Alyson Klein — December 16, 2018 5 min read
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A federal panel led by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that’s charged with making policy recommendations on school shootings in the wake of the massacre at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School last Valentine’s Day promised to have its report out by the end of the year. That means we will see the commission’s report any day now.

So what do we already know about what may be in it? And what should we be watching for? Here’s your quick preview.

The report will almost certainly call for scrapping the Obama administration’s 2014 guidance dealing with discipline disparities. So what happens next?

Almost every advocate watching the commission believes it will recommend ditching Obama guidance, jointly issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. (The Washington Post reported that this is a for-sure thing last week.) The directive put schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if they enforce intentionally discriminatory rules or if their policies lead to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students in one racial group, even if those policies were written without discriminatory intent. You can read about the arguments for and against the guidance here.

The big question will be, how do school districts react to the change? How many will decide to keep using the practices they set up to respond to the guidance, which supporters say has helped school districts revise their discipline policies to benefit of all kids? And how many will decide to make changes, in part because some educators say the guidance has hamstrung local decision-making on discipline? And will Democrats in Congress, who will control the House as of January, move to somehow formalize the guidance in law? It’s unlikely that would pass a Republican-controlled Senate, but it would send a message and keep the debate going in Washington.

What does the report say about arming teachers and about guns in general?

President Donald Trump said that the massacre at Stoneman Douglas might not have been as bad if educators had been armed. “A teacher would have shot the hell out of him before he knew what happened,” Trump said, referring to Nikolas Cruz, the former student who is accused of the slayings.

Since this is Trump’s commission, after all, it’s hard to imagine the report would come out against arming teachers. But it’s an open question how strong the language will be on this topic. Will the report encourage districts to arm educators, and point out that, under the department’s interpretation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, federal funds can be used to arm educators? (Democrats who helped write the law have a different take.)

The panel heard from some supporters of guns in schools, including rural district officials who worried that outside law enforcement wouldn’t be able to get to them in time in the event of a shooting. But it heard from many more people who think the idea is misguided, and even dangerous.

Jacki Ball, the director of government affairs for the National PTA, said she is hoping that the report reflects what the education community had to say in some way. “We saw through all the listening sessions that overwhelmingly there wasn’t support for arming educators in schools,” she said.

Does report recommend any new resources for school safety or mental health?

The panel heard over and over again about the need for more mental health services in schools, from everyone from guidance counselors to Tonette Walker, the wife of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who lost his re-election bid. It explored solutions like positive behavioral supports and interventions, or PBIS, a system of supports and strategies aimed at helping to combat behavior problems. And the commission heard about solutions—like adding locks on doors—that can make schools safer.

The National Association of School Psychologists is hoping the report will include a meaty section on mental health. “We’re looking to see if they address the issue of the importance of school climate and student mental health,” said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of government relations at the National Association of School Psychologists. “It’s not enough to have a report about how you prevent school shootings.”

The Trump administration has sought to zero out the $1.1 billion Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, the part of the Every Student Succeeds Act that districts can use for school safety and mental health. (The GOP-controlled Congress nixed that proposal and instead decided to beef up the program’s funding.)

Ball, of the National PTA, is hoping the report recommends some new resources for mental health and safety.

“You can talk about it all day long, but if you’re not going put the resources in to implement those programs with fidelity, then what good is the recommendation?” she said.

What does the rollout look like?

Will the report be released directly from the White House, with big fanfare or blasted out by email the during the heart of the holiday season, with no comment from the president? The release will say something about how seriously the administration is taking the process and the recommendations. At this point, though, the report will have to be released the week before Christmas, or the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day if the commission is to make the administration’s self-declared deadline.

That’s not great timing if the Trump Team is serious about getting educators to pay attention to the report and its recommendations, advocates say. After all, many district leaders and advocates are off for the holidays, Vaillancourt Strobach said.

Releasing the report in late December “dilutes the impact positive or negative, that the report has,” she said. “Maybe that’s on purpose. This department is not known for being transparent. If they really want people to take this guidance seriously, why not release it a time when advocates and educators are able to devote attention to this?”

Ball had a similar take. “You’d hope that it would be shared during a time when people could give it their full attention,” she said. “We should have the policy discussion, and to bury it during a holiday would be disappointing.”

An early morning fog rises on Feb. 17 where 17 memorial crosses were placed, for the 17 deceased students and faculty from the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.--Gerald Herbert/AP

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