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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School Climate & Safety Opinion

Empowering Teachers and Parents to Speak Up on School Safety

By Rick Hess — March 22, 2021 3 min read
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As millions of students return to school this spring and fall after many months of isolation, angst, and disruption, it’s a good bet there’ll be plenty of issues relating to behavior, discipline, and safety. For me, this raises the question of what, if anything, policymakers should do to ensure that the raft of well-meaning reforms intended to help schools tackle these challenges are indeed keeping students and staff safe. On that count, I’d like to flag a couple intriguing proposals posed by Max Eden, the author of the USA Today bestseller Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies that Created the Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students (full disclosure, Max just recently joined AEI as a research fellow).

Readers should know that Eden is a skeptic when it comes to the bundle of programs and approaches generally characterized as “restorative justice.” He argues that policymakers, because they have come to fear that discipline is inequitable and harmful for students, “have tied teachers’ hands and undermined their authority in the classroom” by mandating restorative-justice practices. This is so, Eden says, even though “study after study after study has documented harm to learning, and school survey after survey after survey has suggested” that teachers have concerns about what disciplinary reforms mean for school climate and safety.

These disconcerting facts have gotten short shrift, Eden argues, due to the emergence of a culture where teachers are less likely to report disciplinary problems. Eden writes that “the pressures to underreport have been baked in” as a result of the U.S. Department of Education threatening districts with “invasive investigations” and lost “federal funding” if it has concerns about their discipline tallies. He explains, “Teachers who complained could be subject to retaliation from their principals, because their principals could be subject to demotion from their superintendents, because their superintendents could be subject to investigations and negative press coverage.” Moreover, he argues, “With teachers too intimidated to speak out and with school board members’ tendency to defer to their superintendents, the parental/democratic feedback loop has been severed.”

For those who share his concerns, Eden asks: How might that loop be repaired? He has a few suggestions on that count for state legislators.

First, he calls for them to establish a “nonprofit organization” to conduct annual audits “of school safety and climate through anonymous, open-ended teacher surveys.” He suggests that such surveys will provide a valuable tool for getting reliable data on what’s happening, enabling teachers to feel heard when it comes to school safety and helping ensure that local news coverage offers more than “puff pieces” rooted in superintendent claims about reduced suspensions.

Eden also urges that state legislatures require every school district to “establish a parental advisory committee on school safety,” with a dedicated agenda line at every school board meeting to raise problems and concerns. He argues that this would give parents a forum to readily raise concerns and teachers an “anonymous avenue” to have their concerns be heard by the board through the parental advisory committee. Eden suggests this mechanism might surface concerns that otherwise go unaired and prompt some board members “to recalibrate” their assumptions.

At the end of the day, whether or not one agrees with Eden’s concerns about restorative justice, it seems to me that giving parents and teachers more confidential avenues for raising concerns about school safety is a proposition all of us could get behind. After all, policies that reward and celebrate school leaders for reducing disciplinary actions may result in less misbehavior—or simply in misbehavior being met with less discipline, potentially compromising the safety and well-being of students and staff. Distinguishing the one from the other requires credible data points and honest talk. We should all want to know how safe schools really are and whether well-meaning practices are actually making them safer—and Eden has offered a couple practical suggestions that’ll help with just that.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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