School Climate & Safety

After Parkland Shooting, Sen. Rubio Questions Obama-Era Guidance on School Arrests

By Evie Blad — March 06, 2018 6 min read
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Obama-era civil rights guidance that calls on schools not to rely on school police officers to administer routine student discipline “may have contributed to systemic failures to report [Parkland school shooting suspect] Nikolas Cruz’s dangerous behaviors to local law enforcement,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary or Education Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions Monday.

That guidance calls upon schools to drive down disproportionately high discipline rates for students of color by examining whether penalties such as suspensions are applied consistently and fairly. It also urges schools to limit the role of school-based police in routine and non-violent disciplinary issues.

“This policy allowed the Departments to initiate an investigation into schools and, if found to be noncompliant, could be at risk of losing federal funding,” Rubio, a Republican, wrote to DeVos and Sessions. “Further, the 2014 directive and subsequent guidance included onerous requirements and harsh penalties that arguably made it easier for schools to not report students to law enforcement than deal with the potential consequences.”

Discipline records

Police say Cruz killed 17 people and injured 15 others in a Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The 19-year-old former student had been moved out of Stoneman Douglas after a string of disciplinary problems, according to records obtained by the Washington Post and other outlets. That has led some conservative media outlets to question whether an agreement between the Broward County district and law enforcement agencies did too much to limit the discretion of officers working in its schools. If Cruz had been arrested for a behavior incident, they argue, it may have been flagged in a background check when he purchased his guns.

That agreement set up a discipline matrix that restricted the use of suspensions and school-based arrests for student misbehavior. The effort, launched in 2013, includes a diversionary program that steers students away from criminal referrals for non-violent misdemeanors. Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie has refused to discuss the specifics of Cruz’s disciplinary history, citing federal privacy laws. At a news conference last week he called criticisms of the district’s program “extremely false and I think disrespectful.” Cruz was not a participant in the diversionary program, he said.

It’s not clear whether any of Cruz’s behaviors would have warranted an arrest at school. Runcie has recommended an outside review of the student’s disciplinary and educational history.

“On Monday, Runcie said that while he was still waiting on information, he hasn’t seen any evidence that the district failed to contact law enforcement when it had information of possible criminal behavior involving Cruz,” the Sun-Sentinel reports.

“He said the district has been criticized by some who feel the district’s zero tolerance for weapons policy is too extreme in the other direction,” the paper reports. “A student at Silver Trail Middle in Pembroke Pines was suspended for six days and referred to police in 2016 after she brought a butter knife to school to cut a peach, according to WPLG-Channel 10.

Criticisms of Broward County’s discipline program are “ridiculous,” Chris Burbank, the vice president for strategic relationships at the Center for Policing Equity and a former Salt Lake City police chief, said in an interview last week. The organization has worked with Broward County to study the relationships between police and schools. “That is just another ploy to not address the underlying issue, which is access to firearms.”

“The most effective intervention that we know of [for student misbehavior] is not the criminal justice system,” Burbank said. “We far too often rely on that ... and once they’re in it, they do not come back.”

Broward County revised its disciplinary policies on its own a year before the Obama administration released its discipline guidance, in part in response to calls from state lawmakers to tackle the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” But some districts around the country have re-examined their discipline methods as the result of federal civil rights investigations into racially disparate discipline rates.

Supporters of the Obama-era guidance say it has put appropriate pressure on schools to examine issues like implicit bias and a lack of student supports that lead some students to be disciplined more than others. But critics say discipline rates that are higher for some groups may be caused by differences in student behavior, and that it’s unfair to force schools to change their policies with a high-stakes mandate.

What does the guidance say about school police and student arrests?

The guidance is mostly known for what it says about suspensions and expulsions, but it also addresses school-based arrests.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said when the Justice and Education departments released the guidance in 2014.

While black students were 15.5 percent of U.S. enrollment in 2013-14, they made up 33.4 percent of school-based arrests and 25.8 percent of referrals to law enforcement, an Education Week Research Center analysis found.

Civil rights groups point to research that found students in schools with on-site police are more likely to be arrested for the same behaviors as their peers at schools without them. In their call for reform, they point to incidents like a 2015 viral video that showed a South Carolina school-based officer violently dragging a student from her desk when she refused to surrender her cell phone to a teacher. The student who recorded the arrest on her cell phone was also arrested on charges of “disturbing a school.”

Here’s what the civil rights guidance says about school police:

  • Schools are responsible for ensuring that police who work in their buildings administer discipline fairly, even if they are directly employed by an outside law enforcement agency. They should do this by creating formal agreements with law enforcement agencies that “clearly define and formalize roles and areas of responsibility to govern student and school interaction with school resource officers and other security or law enforcement personnel.”
  • Schools should “ensure that school personnel understand that they, rather than school resource officers and other security or law enforcement personnel, are responsible for administering routine student discipline.” The National Association of School Resource Officers, which trains school police, has also said police should not be involved in routine disciplinary issues.
  • Schools should “establish procedures and train school personnel and school volunteers on how to distinguish between disciplinary infractions appropriately handled by school officials versus major threats to school safety or serious school-based criminal conduct that cannot be safely and appropriately handled by the school’s internal disciplinary procedures, and how to contact law enforcement when warranted.”

Rubio wants DeVos and Sessions to revise the guidance.

“The overarching goals of the 2014 directive to mitigate the school-to-prison pipeline, reduce suspensions and expulsions, and to prevent racially biased discipline are laudable and should be explored,” Rubio wrote. “However, any policy seeking to achieve these goals requires basic common sense and an understanding that failure to report troubled students, like Cruz, to law enforcement can have dangerous repercussions. The 2014 directive lacked such common sense, but the guidance can be revised to strike an appropriate balance that marries school safety with student discipline and counseling.”

Related reading on the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.