Ignorance or Deliberate Indifference? The Federal Commission on School Safety and “Rethinking Discipline”

By Guy Johnson and Justin Lam

The human brain is deeply dynamic; the architecture and genetic expression of each child’s brain grows and changes in response to that child’s context, experiences, relationships, and environment. From birth to early adulthood, the brain is very malleable. New consensus around the science of brain development is providing us with critical insights we can use to optimize student learning and development.

We know that trauma — and exposure to adverse experiences and toxic stress, which we will discuss more in successive blog posts — has a significant impact on a child’s cognitive, mental, emotional and developmental health, and ultimately, on a child’s’ success in school. The intrinsic malleability of the human brain, however, makes it possible for children, when in environments conducive for their success, to overcome come adverse experiences and excel.

Both science and fairness support the proposition that every child deserves instructional practices and learning environments that:

  • Are academically rigorous and rich, addressing the unique learning and developmental needs and strengths of each child;
  • Integrate academic, cognitive, social, emotional, identity, and health components;
  • Foster deep, positive, empathetic relationships that are culturally responsive and promote each student’s physical and emotional safety;
  • Engage integrated, comprehensive supports to meet individual student needs and address the effects of adversity, including poverty and racism; and
  • Include the intentional development of critical skills, mindsets, and habits.

Equipped with this understanding, we have an unparalleled opportunity to transform education and meet the needs of each and every child.

In the previous blog post in this series, we explored a broader understanding of student “success,” explained the meaning of “trauma” in an academic context, and identified some of the ways that stress-related behaviors often manifest in classrooms. In this blog post, and in the wake of the recently announced recission of school discipline guidance by the Federal Commission on School Safety (Safety Commission), we will take a closer look at the intersection between trauma-related care and the relationship between gun violence in schools and the recommendations made in the Safety Commission’s final report.

The Guardian recently identified 2018 as the worst year on record for gun violence in schools, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database maintained by the program for Advanced Thinking in Homeland Security at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS).

To wit, the NPS counted 94 school shooting incidents this year, a terrible and grisly increase from the previous high, 59, set in 2006. We measure these events now like meteorologists measure rainfall. The regularity of these mass murders is a staggering indictment of our political leadership, a morbid chronicle of our continuing failures. In 2012, the murder of kindergartners and first graders in Sandy Hook, Connecticut was thought to be the last straw, surely the horrible bottom of a national epidemic. And yet, this past February, the school shooting in Parkland, Florida was also thought to be a sure turning point in the debate on school violence.

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Parkland, the Trump Administration created the Federal Commission on School Safety (the Safety Commission). News reporting on the tragedy included details about the attacker’s long history of unmet social, emotional, and psychological need, and 1.7 million people across the country participated in rallies associated with the March for Our Lives Movement to advocate for increased regulations and stricter laws pertaining to gun control.

It is in this context that the effects of the Safety Commission’s work will be felt. By looking at how the guidance was developed, what the guidance means, and why the proposed rescission of the guidance matters for our nation’s schools, we can anticipate the damaging effects this will have on providing more and better care for our neediest students, improving school climates, and reforming school discipline to be less discriminatory towards students with disabilities and students of color, among others.

Four decades of research and input

Students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth experience suspensions, expulsions, and school-related arrests at disproportionately higher rates than their peers. Such gaps have been documented at least as far back as 1975, when a Children’s Defense Fund report found that “widespread discrimination” was behind these disparities.

Four decades later, a 2011 report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that black students were 31 percent more likely to be punished for discretionary behavior than their white or Hispanic peers, and also found evidence for the school-to-prison pipeline. Years of convenings, stakeholder interviews, and research on the issue of school discipline followed.

What are the Rethinking Discipline Policies?

In 2011, under direction from the Obama Administration, The United States Department of Education (US ED) and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), two agencies jointly responsible for implementing and enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws, began the “Rethinking Discipline” effort to analyze school discipline practices with the intention of improving school climates and school discipline practices, clarifying the responsibility of states, districts, and schools to not discriminate unlawfully in the administration of school discipline, and “reducing unnecessary out of school suspensions and expulsions.” These efforts included a series of public and private meetings, the development of public-facing policy documents, the release of official guidance letters from US ED and DOJ in 2014, and the creation of several new programs and initiatives.

Among the guidance and policy documents issued by US ED and DOJ as part of “Rethinking Discipline” were two that attracted significant attention, and that the Safety Commission, has just recommended be repealed:

It bears repeating: the point of “Rethinking Discipline” was to help schools identify, avoid, and replace discipline practices that were either developed with discriminatory intent or that had a discriminatory impact. Part of the effort was a letter detailing ways for schools to meet their obligations under federal law; principles and action steps for states, districts, and schools; a directory of federal resources; a compilation of laws and regulations related to school discipline in each state.

But seen in a broader context, these efforts articulated the urgency of trauma-informed care in schools. Together, the various pieces of the guidance — from a report on ending corporal punishment in schools to guidance on addressing the needs of students with disabilities to a call to limit the use of restraint and seclusion in schools —signal the need for developmentally appropriate interventions for children and for helping school administrators, teachers, and staff better recognize, understand, and effectively care for students who have survived traumatic experiences.

To wit, US ED’s efforts around these issues continued after the official release of the “Rethinking Discipline” guidance, with the Obama administration convening a working meeting of several hundred school leaders, education policy leaders, and federal policymakers on July 2, 2015. One of the sessions at this meeting was “Building Trauma-Informed Schools,” and focused on how to support trauma-informed practices in schools at scale.

The rescission of the guidance has not rescinded our country’s civil rights laws. Schools — independent of the Safety Commission’s recommendations and the looming rescission of the Rethinking Discipline guidance — are still prohibited from discriminating against students, including when it comes to discipline. US ED and DOJ are still responsible for hearing, investigating, and resolving complaints of discrimination.

From a legal perspective, a rescission of the guidance by the Trump Administration, with no immediate replacement, would indicate either that the Administration does not care about discrimination in school discipline, or that it does not have a clear understanding what the law requires.

Similarly, from a student health and school health perspective, rescission of the guidance without a replacement will signify either the Administration’s callous disregard of the needs of students who have suffered trauma or a venomous hostility to ensuring all students have the social and emotional learning supports they need to succeed.

Where we go from here

In our next posts, we will take a closer look at the process used by the Safety Commission to issue its findings and analyze the experiences of educators in Illinois who have been working to implement and improve upon the guidance since 2014.

In the meantime, please take action this week to reflect upon the guidance and its impact for underserved students in your community. Visit the Dignity in Schools website to learn more.

Justin Lam is a former Research and Analysis Fellow for the Partners for Each and Every Child Project. He is a joint Juris Doctor and Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and the Goldman School of Public Policy.