President Trump’s school safety commission, headed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, released its report this week on how to keep schools safe — and it met with a mountain of criticism.
The 177-page report offers scores of ways to improve the security at schools, including its suggestion that schools consider arming personnel but advising against increasing the minimum age required for gun purchases.
Perhaps the most prominent piece of the report was the part where the administration said it would rescind an Obama-era effort to reduce racial disparities in school discipline, a move that the National Association of School Psychologists called “potentially harmful” to children (along with the arming of school personnel).
My Washington Post colleague Laura Meckler’s article on the commission report quoted Tyah-Amoy Roberts, an 18-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed by a gunman last February, as saying: “They’re fishing for solutions when the solutions are stricter gun laws."
This post looks at seven things that the commission chose to ignore and ignores new data about America’s public schools that will be released in full next month by the American Civil Liberties Union, a national nonprofit organization that works to defend civil rights. This piece was written by Amir Whitaker, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California who is responsible for legislation focused on education equity and funding,
Whitaker, who has negotiated settlements and policy changes improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, taught across multiple educational settings for more than a decade. He has worked as a researcher with the UCLA Civil Rights Project, and has written for Time magazine and other publications.
In 2014, he started “Project KnuckleHead” to inspire vulnerable youth and help them reach their potential through education, music, and art programs. Whitaker is also the board chairman of the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, a collaborative of a dozen organizations providing art programming to youth throughout Los Angeles County. He has been a card-carrying member of the ACLU since 2012.
By Amir Whitaker
President Trump’s school safety commission released a report this week that disregards facts and creates false narratives, ignoring a call from student activists for meaningful gun control and opting instead to push the preposterous narrative of a connection between mass shootings and federal civil rights protections for students of color. Expert organizations like the National Association of School Psychologist have also called the report contradictory and potentially harmful.
The American Civil Liberties Union is publishing a report — which, unlike the commission’s, actually takes recent federal data from our 96,000 public schools into account — in January. Meanwhile, here are seven key things the Trump administration’s report disregarded relating to the safety, wellness, and civil rights of students.
1. School discipline and arrests are still being used in a discriminatory manner.
Without citing any research aside from cherry-picked comments, the report recommends making schools safer by revoking Obama-era guidance for educators to address historical inequalities in school discipline. As Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of California stated, this is a “misguided recommendation to eliminate a policy that has nothing to do with the continuing tragedy of school shootings—the quest for disciplining students in a proportionate, fair manner.”
The commission ignored federal data that reaffirms glaring disparities in discipline against students of color and students with disabilities. A recent report we published with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies found students lost over 11 million days of instruction due to suspension in the 2015-16 school year. Black students represented 45 percent of the lost days despite being 15 percent of student nationwide. Research finds suspensions create an opportunity-to-learn gap that contributes to one-fifth the achievement gap. Students of color students receiving harsher discipline compared to their white peers for the same offenses — an issue recently raised by the Government Accountability Office.
Here are related findings from our upcoming report exploring school arrests and referrals to law enforcement. Nationally, students with disabilities made up 12 percent of students but 28 percent of school arrests.
● Nationally, black girls made up 16 percent of the female student population but were 39 percent of girls arrested in school. Black girls were arrested at a rate of 20 per 10,000 — that is four times the rate of white girls (5 per 10,000). In states like North Carolina, Iowa, and Michigan, black girls were more than eight times as likely to be arrested than white girls.
● Nationally, Native American girls had a school arrest rate of 17 per 10,000 or 3.5 times that of white girls. Native American girls were 12 percent of girls in Montana but were 62 percent of female arrests in that state.
● Nationally, black and Latino boys with disabilities were 3 percent of students but were 12 percent of school arrests.
● Referrals to law enforcement increased by 17 percent nationwide. California alone saw a jump from 19,000 to 28,000 law enforcement referrals from 2013-14 to 2015-16.
2. Punitive school discipline worsens school climates and can contribute to school shootings.
In 2007, a 14-year-old student in Cleveland shot four people and killed himself after returning to school “disgruntled after being suspended.” After the shooting, the district underwent a comprehensive evaluation of the conditions leading to the tragedy. The findings listed issues like poor school climate and inconsistent approaches to school discipline as contributing factors. This further invalidates the commission’s recommended rescission of Obama’s evidence-based school discipline guidance is misguided. The ACLU joined more than 150 organizations back in March in a letter calling for the protection of the document anticipating the misguided recession.
3. There’s a support staff crisis affecting more than 90 percent of public schools.
The commission failed to adequately address the crisis with millions of students enrolled in schools with insufficient counselors and mental health personnel. School shooters are often victims of bullying and unaddressed social-emotional needs. In a video recorded before the tragedy, the Parkland shooter stated: “I am nothing. I am no one. My life is meaningless. ... I hate everyone and everything.”
Our report next month analyzes the data of 96,000 public schools required to report the number of psychologists, social workers, counselors, and nurses for the first time in history. The data reveals that more than 43 percent of students are attending schools without a psychologist. Nationally, there is only one social worker for every 2,106 students. The school counselor data suggests that more than 90 percent of American public schools are failing to meet the student-to-staff ratios recommended by professionals. Nationally, there is only one counselor for every 444 students, compared with the recommended ratio of one counselor for every 250 students. Several states, including Arizona, Michigan and California, have counselor ratios 50 percent higher than the national average and up to three times the recommended caseload. This map reflects the number of states that do not meet the professionally recommended ratio in red.
4. There are more than 14 million students in schools that have police but don’t have a counselor, psychologist, social worker or nurse.
Despite the shortage, the federal government is directing funding toward hiring school police instead of counselors. This is troubling, given that research indicates school police do not reduce mass shootings and instead contribute to less inclusive school climates.
Our forthcoming report also analyzes the presence of police and security in schools across states. We compared the number of police and security guards with school-based mental health providers, and found that roughly 25 percent of schools in Washington, D.C., reported a cop but no counselor.
In California, there were twice as many police in schools than social workers. California also reported more security guards than school nurses. Despite the commission’s recommendation, schools should stray away from using chain saws to slice bread. We are only a few months into the school year, and there are already viral videos of school police repeatedly slamming students or arresting them for dress code violations.
What do these numbers say about how we invest in our children?
5. There were more than 290,000 school arrests and referrals to law enforcement reported in the 2015-16 school year.
The presence of law enforcement on campus without adequate support staff to address the mental, social-emotional, and behavioral health needs is a recipe for disaster. Our report found schools with police had an arrest rate 3.5 times higher than schools without law enforcement (21 per 10,000 students, compared with 6 per 10,000). When schools are equipped with hammers, they see nails. I have represented students arrested for food fights, throwing staplers, and other behavior that would not have been criminalized without law enforcement in schools. The ACLU’s 2017 Bullies in Blue report explored the harmful impact of school police on broken window discipline, student privacy rights, and abuse, citing dozens of cases across the country.
6. Toxic masculinity and racial bigotry also contribute to school shootings.
We know mass shooters often have a robust history of violence against women. The Santa Fe shooter targeted his ex-girlfriend as one of the first victims in his attack. The Parkland shooter was reportedly abusive to his ex-girlfriend. He also called her boyfriend [pejorative names for African Americans, Hispanics and homosexuals] and attempted to stab him. In a 1989 tragedy that remains one of the largest school shootings in U.S. history, a man “full of hate” toward Asians shot 37 children at an elementary school in California.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, white men were responsible for 71 percent of extremist-related deaths in America over the last 10 years. The perpetrators of high-profile school shootings over the past few decades have been exclusively white male students. These obvious and problematic trends were absent from the commission’s report. President Trump himself has bragged about sexually assaulting women and campaigned on an openly racist platform.
7. Most of the school shootings the federal government reported this year never happened.
A month after forming the Federal Commission on School Safety, the Department of Education reported that nearly 240 school shootings occurred in the 2015-16 school year. Everytown Research, which compiles school shooting news articles, found that less than 30 school shootings appeared in the media during the 2015-16 school year. The ACLU followed up with schools individually, and nearly 140 of them confirmed federal reporting was erroneous. Our research was corroborated and cited in an NPR investigation. The government inflated the number of school shootings by the hundreds, and the commission failed to correct the number in its report.
Truth has to be at the center of the school safety debate. Lies and misinformation cannot be used to distract the public from calls to confront gun violence. Today’s schoolchildren are experiencing record levels of depression and anxiety alongside multiple forms of trauma. The year 2018 has reminded us that the unmet needs of students can result in tragic crisis.
It is time to focus on the disease instead of the symptoms. Schools need counselors, not cops.