By Grace Donnelly
March 13, 2018

As lawmakers look for solutions to better protect students following the school shooting that left 17 people dead in Parkland, Fla., Republicans are taking up the issue of school disciplinary rules rather than stricter gun control policies.

Specifically, GOP lawmakers are targeting guidelines issued by the Department of Education (DOE) under President Obama to address the differences in the severity of disciplinary actions for students of color.

Known as the Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline, the Obama-era directive sought to minimize the school-to-prison pipeline, in which disadvantaged students who misbehave at school are dealt with by the criminal justice system rather than other disciplinary measures.

Senator Marco Rubio wrote to Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions linking the DOE guidance to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and asking if the policy is what allowed the suspect, Nikolas Cruz, to slip through the system.

DeVos has rolled back other regulations she calls government overreach in the education system, including guidelines on bathroom access for transgender students.

“This issue comes down to individual kids,” she said in a 60 Minutes interview, downplaying the institutional nature of the discrimination the Obama-era guidelines sought to correct.

Conservative commentators from Laura Ingraham to Rush Limbaugh have seized on the Obama-era guidelines as a problem, and now it has made its way into the proposals of GOP lawmakers, including President Trump.

The president announced this week that DeVos will lead a commission to examine the “repeal of the Obama administration’s ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies” as part of a larger review of school safety policies.

According to the New York Times, black students have never been responsible for mass shootings that drove the national conversation about gun safety and minority schools have never been the targets of such attacks, leaving civil rights groups wondering why black students would be the focus when seeking to address an issue that plagues white, male students.

“The removal of this component, combined with the possibility of armed teachers in our schools, sets the stage for transforming our schools into prisons,” the NAACP said.

The Broward county school system, where Marjory Stoneman Douglas is located, has had a program with the goal of limiting outsized disciplinary measures against minority students since 2013, a year before the Obama DOE’s guidelines were issued.

The program, called PROMISE (Preventing Recidivism Through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports & Education), began after Republican-proposed legislation directed school districts away from zero-tolerance policies that led to expulsions and law enforcement referrals for “petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors.”

Cruz, who is white, was never a part of that program and was eventually expelled from school due to his actions, making it an unusual focus in the debate that has followed the shooting.

The superintendent of Broward County schools, Robert Runcie, said the attempt to connect PROMISE to school shootings is misguided.

“We have a program that actually is helping students and is successful, regardless of whether some may like the program or not,” Runcie said.


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