Donald Trump doesn’t have any particular policy goals for his presidency—other than to undo every single thing that Barack Obama achieved and take social equality and progress in America as far back as possible. He’s so obsessed with this agenda that he will use any excuse or event to make it happen. This includes using a tragedy like the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in order to increase discipline measures in public schools.
On the surface, this may sound like a really appealing idea to parents, students, and the general public who are fearful of mass shootings in public places and want to keep people safe. Except it’s not at all likely to have the desired impact of increased safety—least of all for students of color, for whom it will turn out to be far worse.
[This] week, President Trump made the connection, announcing that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will lead a school safety commission charged in part with examining the “repeal of the Obama administration’s ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies.”
Mr. Trump’s prescription “notably backs away from raising the purchase age for assault-style rifles and restricting magazine capacity,” the N.A.A.C.P. said, and instead focuses on a system that once sent one million minority students to Florida jails for “simple and routine discipline issues ranging from talking back to teachers to schoolyard scuffles.”
Rethinking school discipline has long been a sensitive subject for lawmakers, schoolteachers, and administrators alike. On one hand, teachers and administrators often feel that policy guidance like the Obama-era one limits their autonomy and ability to respond to discipline incidents appropriately. They have a point—especially given that there is less agreement about the role the federal government can and should play in the oversight of K-12 schools compared to higher education.
However, what guidance like this specifically attempts to do is to get educators to acknowledge the ways that structural racism and inequality exist in public education and asks them to work toward a remedy.
These two things shouldn’t be, and are not, mutually exclusive. But at a time where educators and lawmakers should be having a substantive conversation about the connection between school safety, discipline, and racism in education, they are not—because the Trump administration and Republicans have exploited a tragedy for their own purposes and hijacked the topic completely.
“The removal of this component [a program called Promise, which has been successful in reducing disciplinary referrals and student-based arrests in Broward County], combined with the possibility of armed teachers in our schools, sets the stage for transforming our schools into prisons,” the N.A.A.C.P. said.
Long before the attack in Parkland, Fla., the 2014 discipline guidelines, which encouraged schools to examine their discipline disparities and to take stock of discriminatory policies, were already on Ms. DeVos’s radar — but not because they were seen as a possible culprit in the next school shooting. Conservatives were using the Trump administration’s effort to rein in federal overreach to reverse policies designed to protect against what the Obama administration had seen as discriminatory practices.
It’s not shocking that Republicans are using this issue to stoke racial animus and to complain that this is victimizing white students and teachers and is, in effect, “reverse racism.” Their position is that the discipline guidance actually creates an unsafe school environment because educators are pressured into reducing suspensions. Moreover, they claim that white teachers are painted as racists whenever they wish to suspend minority students. Now, we know that nearly every argument conservatives make these days is not based in any kind of fact. And this is no exception.
Studies not only show that we have a serious problem with the school-to-prison pipeline, but they also show that teacher bias and discrimination in school discipline is part of the reason why so many children of color are forced into the justice system during their childhood and adolescence.
When the guidance was issued, federal data found that African-American students without disabilities were more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended, and that more than 50 percent of students who were involved in school-related arrests or who were referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or African-American.
“Children’s safety also includes protection from oppression and bigotry and injustice,” Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California at Los Angeles’s Civil Rights Project, wrote in testimony to the Civil Rights Commission. “Fear-mongering and rhetoric that criminalizes youth of color, children from poor families and children with disabilities should not be tolerated.”
But who cares about the lives and well-being of children, right? At least, children of color. That’s the active thinking behind this administration and their supporters, who are advocating to turn schools into jails instead of deal with the NRA and pass some common-sense gun legislation. This bunch is nothing if not transparent and consistent. Betsy DeVos has done nothing but harm since she was given the job of Education Secretary—a position that she has zero qualifications for and no business being in. She’s already rolled back protections for sexual assault survivors on university campuses and has been lying to the public about how great charter schools are for the country and have been for her home state of Michigan, even though we also have facts to disprove it. She’s also been aiding in the privatization of schools in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. She’s a fraud, Trump is a con man, and the entire administration is looking for another way to further a white nationalist agenda—and they don’t care how they do it.
Now is the time to talk about gun control. And since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is the latest tragedy which demonstrates our nonsensical gun laws, it does offer us the opportunity to talk about school safety and discipline. But we cannot afford to let Republicans derail the conversation and put more students at risk. To connect mass school shootings—which are largely taking place in predominantly white schools by white male gunmen—to programs that are designed to bring equal treatment to black and brown students is wrong and racist. Then again, since when does this administration worry about being wrong or racist? Never. In fact, they actually got their jobs because of it.