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Seven Big Takeaways From Trump Commission’s School Safety Report

By Alyson Klein — December 18, 2018 7 min read
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After months of meetings, the Federal School Safety Commission chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has finally made its recommendations on how to combat future school shootings, in the wake of the February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Daunted by slogging through all 180 pages and 19 chapters? Here are some key takeaways. And then check out our more comprehensive story on the report here.

As widely expected, the report recommends scrapping the Obama administration’s discipline guidance.

Advocates saw this one coming from a mile away, in part because DeVos already was exploring changes to the guidance before the commission was convened.

The guidance, issued back in 2014, put schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if they enforce intentionally discriminatory rules—or even if their policies lead to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students in one racial group or for students in special education, even if those policies were written without discriminatory intent.

Critics of the guidance say it limited teachers’ ability to discipline their students and amounted to federal overreach. But fans of the guidance said it helped bolster civil rights protections of students who are often overlooked, and motivated states and districts to take a second look at their disciplinary practices, making changes that have benefited everyone.

To be clear, the guidance hasn’t yet been officially nixed, although the Education Department is expected to move to yank it soon. School districts that have revamped their practices in response to the guidance could stick with the changes if they want—and some educators are hoping they will. More in this post from my colleague, Evie Blad.

The commission wants school districts to take a hard look at arming “specially selected and trained” school staff.

The report encouraged states and districts to consider placing more armed school personnel in schools, including School Resource Officers (SROs), but not limited to them. This also is no surprise, given that President Donald Trump made it clear he thought the death toll in Parkland would have been lower if only the teachers had been armed.

The commission specifically suggests that districts might want to hire more staff with prior experience using firearms, including military veterans or retired law enforcement officials. It recommends districts may want to provide incentives to entice these folks to join the education profession and make it easier for them to become certified teachers.

The report notes that some Justice Department grants can be used to help train and arm school staff. But it doesn’t specifically say schools can use a flexible block in the Every Student Succeeds Act as well, even though that’s DeVos’ department’s interpretation of the law. (ESSA’s Democratic architects read the legislation differently.)

There’s not much in the report when it comes to restricting access to guns.

Many Parkland students, Democrats, and education advocacy groups have urged action on gun restrictions. But DeVos said early on that the commission wouldn’t be dealing with guns, for the most part. The report took a pass on urging age restrictions for firearms purchases, one of few areas dealing with guns that Trump urged the commission to look at.

“The available research does not support the conclusion that age restrictions for firearms purchases are effective in reducing homicides, suicides, or unintentional deaths,” the report said. “Most school shooters obtain their weapons from family members or friends rather than by purchasing them.”

But the commission did encourage states to adopt “extreme risk protection orders,” which temporarily bar people who pose a threat to themselves or others from purchasing guns.

The commission has lots of love—but proposes no new money—for mental health services.

The report calls out a number of strategies for boosting mental health in schools, including positive behavioral supports and interventions, or PBIS, a strategy that was used at Stoneman Douglas and other schools that have experienced shootings. It also highlights social emotional learning (SEL), character education, mental health literacy, and more.

But it doesn’t call for any new federal resources for these activities. Instead, it leaves funding up to states. Specifically: “States should provide resources for their schools to help create a positive school climate where students feel connected to, rather than isolated from, their teachers and fellow students,” the reports says.

Needless to say, advocates for school districts aren’t so happy about that.

“The commission has chosen to ‘pass the buck’ to states, hoping that states will find the money to support state and district efforts; or worse, advise federal agencies on how they can use limited, existing federal resources to comprehensively address the myriad of challenges that prevent tragedies in schools,” said Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, in a statement.

The commission wants districts to make schools “harder” targets.

The commission notes that Stoneman Douglas had some clear security vulnerabilities. For instance, teachers could only lock their classroom doors from the outside, and classroom windows weren’t well-reinforced, allowing the alleged perpetrator to shoot right through them. The commission wants schools, districts, and states to make sure they take a hard look at potential problems with their facilities through “risk assessments.” The commission suggested that the federal government create a clearinghouse that school districts can use to share strong security strategies.

Interestingly, this is the one area where the report may be calling for new resources, or at least shifting federal dollars.

“The [Department of Homeland Security] in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, should explore legislative, regulatory, or procedural modifications to existing grant programs to enable more grant funding or related resources to be available for enhancing school security operations and physical infrastructure,” the report says.

Jacki Ball, the director of government affairs for the National PTA, hopes that won’t mean shifting resources away from resources like school counselors. “We want to focus more on the people, not the products,” she said.

It’s mostly going to be up to states and school districts to implement these policies.

There are far more recommendations in the report for states, districts, and schools than there are for the federal government. That’s by design.

“Our recommendations can assist states and local communities, but ultimately governors and state legislators should work with local school leaders, teachers, parents, and students to address their own unique challenges and develop their own specific solutions,” DeVos told reporters Tuesday.

The report contains a Christmas tree of recommendations on everything from cyberbullying to psychotropic drugs.

The report has chapters on a wide-range of issues: cyberbullying (but not specifically regular bullying), psychotropic drugs (which Oliver North, the president of the National Rifle Association, has suggested are linked to school shootings), the effects of press coverage on mass shootings, violent entertainment and video game rating systems, the FBI’s public access line, and more.

“This report is without equal—without equal in the last 40 years—without equal in the last 18 years in its significance, in its originality, and its comprehensive review of the issue,” a senior administration official said.

But it’s unclear how useful the recommendations will be to the field.

“The recommendations are not written in a way that was friendly to decisionmakers,” said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of government relations at the National Association of School Psychologists. “This is a lot of text and time. ... What they have clearly done is advance the agenda they had before this even started.”

Jill Collins, a 3rd grade teacher at DeLand-Weldon Elementary School, fires off a round during a concealed carry class for teachers in June at Adventure Tactical Training in Farmer City, Ill. The class was designed to help teachers feel less vulnerable in the wake of school shootings across the country.--David Proeber/The Pantagraph via AP

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