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Trump’s safety panel recommends schools consider arming personnel

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos talked in May to first-grader Teah Stanley at Hebron Harman Elementary School in Hanover, Md., as part of a field visit for the Federal Commission on School Safety. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s Federal Commission on School Safety, formed after a mass shooting at a Florida high school, recommended Tuesday that school systems consider arming personnel and advised against increasing the minimum age required for gun purchases.

In the formal release of its report, the panel, chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, sidestepped other contentious issues regarding access to firearms. Still, DeVos characterized the 177-page report as presenting a “holistic” view of school safety, with chapters addressing mental health, violent entertainment, news coverage of mass shootings and building security.

The most concrete recommendation calls for rescinding an Obama-era initiative meant to reduce racial disparities in school discipline. The commission argues that this guidance has made schools less safe by discouraging them from removing dangerous students. The Education and Justice departments are expected to follow through on the recommendation in the coming days.

The move is controversial because of its disputed connection to the mass shootings the commission was formed to address. The decision to recommend that the guidance be repealed, and other elements of the report, were first reported by The Washington Post last week.

The commission was created in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which resulted in the deaths of 17 people. Initially, Trump suggested he might support new gun restrictions, but he quickly backtracked. The commission’s mandate included almost nothing related to gun laws.

Most of the report consists of suggestions for states and local school systems to consider, along with information and research about what others have tried.

“There is no universal school safety plan that will work for every school across the country. Such a prescriptive approach by the federal government would be inappropriate, imprudent, and ineffective,” said a letter to Trump introducing the report from the commission’s four members — DeVos, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker.

The report came under fire from Democrats, civil rights advocates and anti-gun activists, who after the Parkland shooting demanded action to stem the availability of firearms. Hundreds of thousands of students marched at rallies throughout the country and walked out of classrooms in protest.

“They’re fishing for solutions when the solutions are stricter gun laws,” said Tyah-Amoy Roberts, an 18-year-old senior at Stoneman Douglas High.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals said it was “puzzling” that the commission would spend seven months “rediscovering well-known school safety strategies,” while avoiding important questions about the availability of guns. “Guns in the wrong hands is a common element in school shootings,” the group said. The commission’s failure to address that element — with even the most sensible and noncontroversial recommendations — is nothing short of willful ignorance.”

The report includes a lengthy discussion of mental health issues, but does not suggest federal funding or policies to address shortcomings. Rather, it recommends federal agencies publicize existing programs, and advises that state and local officials work harder to increase awareness, screening and services.

It also urges states to bolster systems to identify people who may commit violent acts and suggests better rating systems for violent online content.

The panel considered whether to recommend raising the minimum age for gun purchases, as Florida did following the Parkland shooting, and concluded that such laws make little difference. The report says that although many shooters are too young to buy a weapon, most use guns from their own home or from a relative. Raising the minimum age requirement, the report says, “is unlikely to be an effective method for preventing or reducing school shootings.”

The commission called on states to adopt laws that restrict people who present an extreme risk from possessing or buying guns. But the report said an “appropriate evidentiary standard” must exist and said some states have gone too far in taking away gun rights without balancing due process considerations.

The report suggests that school systems consider arming and training teachers or other personnel to prevent, recognize and respond to threats of violence. That could include school resource officers, who are typically law enforcement officers, and school personnel, which could include administrators and teachers.

“Placement of specially trained personnel in schools is an effective tool in stopping acts of school violence,” the report says.

One of the most controversial elements of the report may be the recommendation to rescind the “rethink school discipline” documents published by the Obama administration.

The guidance was issued by the Education and Justice departments in 2014 as a letter to school officials. It puts districts on notice that they could be violating federal civil rights law if black students or other students of color are suspended, expelled or otherwise disciplined at higher rates than white students.

The report concluded that the guidance, although not legally enforceable, pushed districts to ease up on discipline, and suggested this has allowed bad behavior to continue and dangerous students to remain in schools, setting the stage for violence. Trump’s panel also concluded that the guidance encouraged schools to use quotas in disciplining students to ensure students of color were not disproportionately punished.

“The Commission is deeply troubled that the Guidance, while well-intentioned, may have paradoxically contributed to making schools less safe,” the report said.

The panel also questioned the legal notion of “disparate impact,” which underlies the guidance and holds that a school may be discriminating if its policies have a discriminatory effect, even if they are not explicitly biased. “That theory lacks foundation in applicable law,” it said.

Disparate impact has been an element of federal civil rights enforcement since the 1960s. Supporters of the Obama recommendation say the 2014 memo was necessary to address large racial disparities in discipline.

The letter from four years ago cited data showing that African American students are more likely to be disciplined than their white peers and said the gap cannot be explained by more frequent or serious misbehavior.

A survey of superintendents found that just 16 percent had modified their districts’ practices based on the Obama guidance. Among those making changes, nearly half said it had been a positive experience, with 4 percent reporting negative effects.

“Once again, the Trump administration turns its back on our most vulnerable and underserved students,” said a joint statement from Arne Duncan and John King, who served as education secretaries during the Obama administration. “Today’s recommendation to roll back guidance that would protect students from unfair, systemic school discipline practices is beyond disheartening.”

Moriah Balingit contributed to this report.