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Critics assail Trump panel recommendations that would strip students of civil rights while not boosting student safety

Free Press wire reports | 12/21/2018, 6 a.m.
The Trump administration on Tuesday moved to roll back an Obama-era policy that was meant to curb racial disparities in ...

Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos

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Rep. A. Donald McEachin

The Trump administration on Tuesday moved to roll back an Obama-era policy that was meant to curb racial disparities in school discipline but that critics say left schools afraid to take action against potentially dangerous students.

The recommendation was among dozens issued in a new report by President Trump’s federal Commission on School Safety, which was formed in response to a Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 students and staff members, and sparked a national debate over gun control.

The panel, chaired by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, was asked to study a range of options to bolster security at America’s schools, from the regulation of guns to the regulation of violent video games.

Yet rather than suggest a series of sweeping changes, the commission issued 100 smaller suggestions that largely avoid strong stances on topics like gun control and whether schools should arm teachers.

“Our conclusions in this report do not impose one-size-fits-all solutions for everyone, everywhere,” Ms. DeVos said. “The primary responsibility for the physical security of schools and the safety of their students naturally rests with states and local communities.”

President Trump praised the report at a White House event on Tuesday, saying “nothing is more important than protecting our nation’s children.”

On the question of whether schools should arm staff members, the panel said it should be left to states and schools to decide, but Ms. DeVos said schools should “seriously consider” the option. The report highlights districts that have armed staff members, and it steers schools to federal funding that can be used for firearm training.

Among the biggest proposals is a rollback of guidance issued in a 2014 letter from the federal Education and Justice departments to school officials that urges schools not to suspend, expel or report students to police except in the most extreme cases. Instead, the guidance calls for a variety of “restorative justice” remedies that don’t remove students from the classroom.

Former President Obama’s administration issued the guidance after finding that African-American students were more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled. The directive warns that schools suspected of discrimination — even if it is unintentional — can face investigations and risk losing federal funding.

But the policy came under scrutiny following the Parkland shooting, with some conservatives suggesting it discouraged school officials from reporting the shooter’s past behavioral problems to police. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican and one of the most vocal critics, urged Ms. DeVos to find a better balance between discipline and school safety.

In its report, the commission said the policy was well-intentioned but “may have paradoxically contributed to making schools less safe.”

It calls for a rollback, saying disciplinary decisions should be left to school officials. It said the Justice Department should continue investigating intentional discrimination but not the unintentional cases that are barred under the 2014 policy.

The proposed rollback was praised by some conservative groups but drew sharp criticism from advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers, including Congressman A. Donald McEachin of Henrico, who in 2017 requested a federal investigation into disparities in student discipline within Richmond Public Schools and other public school systems within Virginia’s 4th Congressional District.