By Simone Bradley
In a shocking turn of events, the Trump administration has found a way to blame the Obama administration for the recent massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Remember in 2013 when Obama sought to decrease the number of unwarranted suspensions and expulsions of minority students? Well, according to Marco Rubio, Florida republican and education expert, this program is how Nikolas Cruz was able to bypass disciplinary measures and evade arrest before opening fire on his former classmates on February 14th, 2018.
The policies themselves tell a different story. When former President Obama instituted the ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies, the point was to combat the vast disparity in discipline experienced by minority as compared to their white classmates. In 2013, federal data found that African-American students were more than three times as likely as their white peers to be expelled or suspended, and that more than 50 percent of students who were involved in school-related arrests were Hispanic or African-American.
After the Obama Administration released its school discipline guidelines, California began to implement policies that were more restorative and less punitive in their schools and as early as 2015 California schools began to see sharp declines in suspensions across the state.
A program in Parkland, Florida called ‘PROMISE’ (Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports & Education) called for a more in-depth look into the reasons students were acting out, and how they could be helped using restorative justice and communicative approaches.
Inspired by the information the Department of Education released in 2013, these programs, and others like them, have helped schools rethink how they see students who act out or get into trouble, and increase students’ sense of support and belonging in school.
These policy guidelines and the programs they produced are not the problem.
Despite this, people are using the Parkland tragedy as an opportunity to rescind them. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has announced that she will lead a school safety commission whose goal will be to see if the “repeal of the Obama administration's ‘Rethink School Discipline’ policies” is in order and Marco Rubio, in blaming the Obama guidelines for the shooting, conveniently forgets that Cruz was in fact expelled from school, and was then investigated by the FBI itself (who found no reason to put him under arrest).
What Rubio and DeVos seem to be missing (or ignoring) is that mass school shootings have consistently been carried out by white, male shooters at predominantly whiter schools. WIthout examining the toxic masculinity fueling these outburst, combined with the ease with which one can get a semi-automatic firearm, nothing will change.
Moreover the entire point of Obama’s policy guidelines, and the restorative approaches to discipline that have sprung up in response, is that the needs of students aren’t being taken into account. Yes, some students need to be expelled from school in order to maintain safety, but that doesn’t mean they should be thrown away by society and completely marginalized. That was in some ways the point of the “walk up, not out” counter-protest in response to the walkouts on March 14th, however it put the responsibility to help students onto other students. Obama rightfully placed the onus onto administrators to listen and help students who might be acting up due to mental health issues, rather than ignore and expel. Safe schools include a myriad of important issues being handled all at once from stopping bullying to making sure guns aren’t accessible. The restorative approach makes room for all of the issues, acknowledging that these problems aren’t black and white and cannot be solved in one simple step. Students are aware of this too, calling for nationwide protests to promote change in gun legislation and asking for more programs to help their peers suffering from mental illness in their schools.
But DeVos’ Department of Education has chosen to focus on fiction rather than fact. As a proponent of ‘right to choose’ educational policies, DeVos has all but turned her back on the public school system in America at a time when funding is most crucial and yet woefully unattainable. If her recent interview on ‘60 Minutes’ taught us anything, it’s that her lack of experience and lack of interest in schools and students may yet result in extreme policies with devastating results.
If the repeal of these Obama era measures is successful, the only change we will see is the increased rate of minority students entering the prison system before they are even old enough to vote, but perhaps that’s been the plan this whole time.
Luckily we don’t have to sit back and let this happen. State legislatures across the country have instituted their own versions of these Obama Administration policies and are not looking to rewrite them any time soon. We saw that in two years AB420 in California drastically shifted the ways in which students were being disciplined and programs like the PROMISE program are popping up all over the place. This is the time to focus on a restorative approach to our schools and our students.
Simone Bradley is a guest blogger for the Restorative Justice Center at UC Berkeley.