Scrap Discipline Guidance, Consider Arming School Staff, Trump Commission Says
A panel created by President Donald Trump to help prevent future school shootings called Tuesday for getting rid of Obama administration guidance aimed at making sure students of color and students with disabilities aren’t disciplined more harshly than their peers.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who leads the Federal Commission on School Safety, said the report encourages schools “to seriously consider the option of partnering with local law enforcement in the training and arming of school personnel.” But the report did not suggest that arming school staff—something supported by Trump—become a federal mandate.
Instead, it recommends that districts offer incentives for retired law enforcement officials, military veterans, and others with firearms training to serve as educators, as well as ease teacher certification so that they can more easily join the profession.
In what appears to be the only nod to gun control, the 180-page report endorses state adoption of “extreme risk protection orders,” which temporarily restrict access to firearms from individuals found to be a danger to themselves or others.
The report also endorses better access to mental health services “so that people can receive the treatment they need,” DeVos said in an early-morning call with reporters. That includes working with Congress to update health and school privacy laws.
And it calls on journalists to “be more responsible in their coverage of school shootings” and not to publish images or names of the perpetrators, DeVos said on the call.
But the commission did not recommend new age restrictions for the purchase of firearms—one of the few gun-related issues Trump asked the panel to consider in response to calls for gun control after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Later in the day, Trump, DeVos, and the other commission members met with survivors and families of victims from the Parkland shootings, as well as from the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Trump said most school shootings take less than five minutes, which is why “it’s critical to have armed personnel available at a moment’s notice,” he added. “These are people, teachers in many cases, that are the highest-trained that you can get. People that are natural to firearms. People who know how to handle them. People that have great experience and on top of the experience have taken courses. … Also they love our students … and in loving our students, they want to fight for our students.”
The commission originally consisted of three cabinet secretaries in addition to DeVos: Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services; Kirstjen M. Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security; and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general. (Sessions resigned in November, and his former chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, is now serving as acting attorney general and as a member of the commission.)
President Donald Trump set up the Federal Commission on School Safety in March 2018 in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead. Trump appointed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to chair the commission, which spent months holding formal meetings, field visits with invited speakers and experts, and listening sessions with the public in Washington and in seven states around the country.
- Chair: Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education
- Matthew Whitaker, Acting Attorney General of the United States (replaced former Attorney General Jeff Sessions)
- Alex Azar, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services
- Kirstjen M. Nielsen, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security
"Quickly providing meaningful and actionable recommendations to keep students safe at school. These recommendations will include a range of issues, like social emotional support, recommendations on effective school safety infrastructure, discussion on minimum age for firearms purchases, and the impact that videogames and the media have on violence."
From the get-go, education advocates were concerned about the safety commission’s mandate and its process for garnering feedback from the K-12 community. And they worried that the four Trump cabinet officials wouldn’t be able to consider gun safety issues outside of a political context, and didn’t have any hands-on experience in schools. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, even sent a letter to DeVos asking how much sway the National Rifle Association had on the panel’s activities and mission.
The panel set up an email address to solicit ideas from the public and held four “listening sessions” around the country, at which members of the public could sign up to speak. One was at the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters in Washington. The other three were in states Trump easily won in 2016: Alabama, Kentucky, and Wyoming. At least one of those states—Wyoming—allow school employees to carry firearms on school grounds, as long as they have a permit and permission from district leadership.
The commission also held “field hearings” to hear from educators and experts on topics like positive behavior interventions and supports or PBIS, a system of supports and strategies meant to combat behavior problems. The commission members also visited rural districts that arm educators.
DeVos said the commission, which issued some 100 individual policy recommendations, sought input from educators, community members, law enforcement experts, and others in nearly every state and reviewed hundreds of comments.
“This report is without equal. Without equal in the last 40 years. Without equal in the past 18 years in its significance, originality, and its comprehensive review of the issue,” a White House official told reporters.
The 2014 discipline guidance—jointly issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice—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.
Both of Obama’s education secretaries—Arne Duncan and John B. King, Jr.—quickly blasted any move to rescind that guidance.
“Once again, the Trump administration turns its back on our most vulnerable and underserved students,” they wrote Tuesday. “Today’s recommendation to roll back guidance that would protect students from unfair, systemic school discipline practices is beyond disheartening. It is also shameful that this administration has chosen to ignore students, educators, families, and advocates who have repeatedly asked to keep this guidance in place.”
But a White House staffer defended the decision.
“One of the things that the commission was concerned with what was the recurring narrative that teachers in the classroom or students in the hallways and on campus were afraid because individuals who had a history of anti-social, or in some instances, aggressive, trending toward violent behavior, were left unpunished or were left unchecked,” said a White House official in explaining the recommendation.
DeVos and her team were already considering scrapping the guidance, even before the Parkland massacre. But the issue became part of the safety panel’s deliberations, in part because in Florida’s Broward County school district, where Parkland is located, an alternative discipline program had served as a example when the Obama administration announced its directive.
The PROMISE discipline program, created in 2013, required Broward County schools to refer students to an alternative disciplinary program instead of law enforcement for a list of nonviolent offenses. The accused Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was referred to the program for three days after he damaged a faucet in his middle school restroom. But it is not clear if he attended.
A state panel created to investigate the shooting said in July that the PROMISE program had “no bearing on the outcome” and did not affect the gunman’s ability to purchase firearms, as some had speculated.
Critics of the Obama discipline guidance say the document has had a chilling effect on local decisionmaking. Racial differences in discipline rates can’t entirely be explained by different treatment in schools, those critics contend. They argue black students are more likely to be exposed to out-of-school factors, like poverty, which can cause them to misbehave more.
Some educators testifying before the safety commission urged the panel to scrap the guidance.
“The schools can be the repository of some student criminals,” Judy Kidd, the president of the North Carolina Classroom Teachers Association, a political organization for educators meant to provide a counterbalance to the teachers’ unions, said at a July commission hearing in Washington.
But supporters of the guidance say it has been instrumental in protecting the civil rights of students who are often overlooked. And the directive has motivated states and districts to re-examine their disciplinary practices, making changes that have benefited all students, they say.
To be sure, school districts and states can continue the discipline policies they’ve set up to respond to the guidance, even if it is rescinded.
Tynisha Jointer, the behavioral health specialist for Chicago Public Schools, is hoping her district stays the course.
“We’ve done a ton of work to take a more restorative approach to discipline. We will continue to prioritize fostering our whole child,” she said.
She worries that rescinding the guidance would reinforce biases that some educators often unconsciously bring to disciplining nonwhite students.
“When a black child is misbehaving, we often times see that black child’s misbehavior as defiant and deviant. Whereas a white child is exploring, they’re testing boundaries,” said Jointer, who was one of a group from the non-profit Educators for Excellence who personally implored DeVos to keep the guidance. “This will send a message that what we have to do for children of color is punish and manage them.”
Black students are consistently disciplined more often than their peers, according to a report issued by the Government Accountability Office in April. While black students represented 15.5 percent of public school students in 2013-14, they made up 39 percent of students suspended, the report said.
The report’s support for arming “specially selected and trained school personnel” comes as no surprise.
Trump called for arming school staff—an idea pushed by the National Rifle Association—even before he set up the commission in March.
“A teacher would have shot the hell out of him before he knew what happened,” Trump said, referring to the former student who is accused of the Parkland slayings.
Trump also suggested that the federal government should consider giving districts grants to cover bonus pay for armed educators.
Under the DeVos Education Department’s interpretation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, it’s up to states to decide whether districts can allocate federal money to purchase firearms or train teachers to use them. Democrats in Congress dispute that reading of the law, including ESSA architects Murray and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the incoming chairman of the House education committee.
And plenty of educators, advocates, and experts who testified before the safety panel pleaded with members to steer clear of support for arming school staff.
Abbey Clements taught 4th grade at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on the day in 2012 that 26 students and teachers were killed there.
“It’s completely unrealistic to think that an educator [could] take down the gunman without interfering with law enforcement’s response, or harming or killing other educators, or God forbid, children,” she told the commission at a June listening session in Washington. “This is not the movies. This is school.”
But some educators argued that arming staff can be a good option for rural schools located far from first responders.
“Because of where we’re located, the last two sheriffs here in Garland County told me we could expect 20 to 30 minutes wait time if an active shooter situation happened on campus before an officer could be here,” Lake Hamilton, Ark., schools Superintendent Steve Anderson, who carries a gun at school, told the commission at an August hearing in Arkansas. “We’re not willing to take that chance. We need someone to protect our kids.”
Since the Parkland shooting, Florida has acted to allow schools to arm some staff. Under a law passed less than a month after that attack, the state legislature mandated a “school guardian” trained in firearms or law enforcement officer in every school. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the Florida sheriff leading the state commission investigating Parkland, said he had a change of heart about his opposition to arming teachers after he learned more about what unfolded inside the high school. But some Parkland teachers and victims’ families remain opposed to the idea.
The report highlighted local strategies for expanding mental health, even though it did not suggest new federal resources to cover the costs.
It also recommended schools adopt character education, social-emotional learning programs, and efforts to combat cyber-bullying.
For instance, the report lauded districts and schools that use PBIS. Sixteen states were using it in 500 schools or more, as of August 2015, and nearly every state uses it to some extent, experts say.
Two districts that recently experienced mass shootings also appear to use PBIS to some extent, according to their websites: the Broward County school district, which is home to Stoneman Douglas, and Texas’ Santa Fe Independent School District, near Houston, the site of another mass shooting in May.
In its most recent budget, the Trump administration sought to eliminate funding for the ESSA’s Student Success and Academic Enrichment grants, a flexible pot of money districts can use for bolstering school safety and expanding mental health services.
But Congress countered by increasing that funding to $1.1 billion, a $400 million increase over the previous school year.
Citing research by the U.S. Secret Service, the report noted that school attackers often signal their intentions beforehand. It advocated for threat assessment programs and reporting systems, like Colorado’s Safe2Tell tipline, to provide students a place to share concerns that their peers may harm themselves or others. Such programs got a shot of funding from the STOP School Violence Act, passed by Congress a month after the Florida shooting.
Scope of Panel’s Work
Back in March, Trump also tasked the panel with exploring age restrictions for certain firearm purchases, potential repeal of Obama-era guidance designed to address racial disparities in school discipline, rating systems for video games, and character education and “connectedness,” as well as access to mental health treatment.
It was also asked to look at the effects of press coverage on mass shootings, and the “appropriateness of psychotropic medication for treatment of troubled youth.” Oliver North, the president of the NRA, has blamed school shootings on the drug Ritalin, which is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The people most directly affected by the Florida shooting—families who lost loved ones that day—have had a variety of reactions to the federal response. While some have supported Trump’s emphasis on fortifying schools, others have focused more on calls for stronger gun restrictions.
Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter, Jaime, in the shooting, tweeted over the weekend that he had rejected a chance to join other families in reviewing the report’s findings. He cited a tweet from Trump right after the shooting that suggested the FBI was too distracted by investigating his campaign to properly respond to warnings about the shooter.
“He chose to lie about what he knew and made the death of my daughter political on the day I buried her,” Guttenberg wrote. “He then asked DeVos to start a commission on what happened but NOT to look at guns as a factor. For me, you cannot offer a plan that refuses to look at this critical part. For me, this makes her plan inadequate.”
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow died in the shooting, called the commission’s findings "the most comprehensive report done after a school shooting by any administration.”
“No agenda just facts make our schools safe,” he tweeted.