Arming teachers isn’t the only dangerous education policy being promoted by President Trump. He also wants to throw out guidelines issued by the Obama administration to reduce the blatant racial discrimination that frequently occurs when minority and white students are disciplined for the same offense.
The Department of Education issued guidelines encouraging school districts to eliminate or severely limit expulsions and suspensions in 2014 after its Office of Civil Rights reported that black students were suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students.
On average, 5 percent of white students are suspended, compared with 16 percent of black students. Black children represent 16 percent of total student enrollment, but are 31 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest. White students, 51 percent of enrollment, account for 39 percent of those arrested.
The bias even extends to preschool, where black children are 18 percent of the enrollment, but 48 percent of preschoolers who are suspended more than once. White children are 43 percent of preschool enrollment but only 26 percent of the preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension.
Rather than questioning why such disparity exists, Trump suggested that the Obama disciplinary guidelines had made schools more dangerous. He and Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) said the policy may have even played a role in the mass murder at Stoneman Douglas High School. The shooter, former student Nikolas Cruz, was disciplined numerous times but never expelled. “The failure to report troubled students, like Cruz, to law enforcement can have dangerous repercussions,” said Rubio.
Trump has directed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to begin a review process aimed at rescinding the Obama guidelines. DeVos, in a 60 Minutes interview, said she is “making sure students have an opportunity to learn in safe and nurturing environments.” Fine, but it’s also her responsibility to make sure schoolchildren aren’t receiving harsher punishments for the same behavior just because they are black or brown.
That’s a lesson Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. can teach DeVos. “All children, no matter their racial background, deserve strong and positive educational environments,” Hite said. “Behavior in school is often indicative of other issues — trauma, pain, mental health, or the negative and lasting impact of living in the uncertainty of poverty. These are not students who need punitive discipline; these are children who need a different approach.”
That different approach in Philadelphia schools includes greater emphasis on conflict resolution, developing a diversion program with the city Police Department and Department of Human Services, stopping arrests for low-level offenses that lead to school dropouts, and eliminating suspensions for dress code violations and for kindergarten students.
Making sure classrooms aren’t disrupted by bad actors doesn’t mean abandoning policies designed to ensure discipline is dispensed fairly. Trump, with DeVos and Rubio tagging along, keeps looking for opportunities to make grand statements and gestures that suggest he is working hard to prevent another tragedy like the Stoneman Douglas massacre.
But the president’s adding school discipline policies to his to-do list, even as he continues to avoid strengthening our weak gun laws, is a joke. Or would be, if the subject weren’t so serious.