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Deeper Learning in Trump's Cross Hairs: How Rescinding Obama's Policies Could Make Schools Less Safe

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This post is by Sean Darling-Hammond, an attorney and PhD candidate at the University ofCalifornia, Berkeley.

UPDATED: CHART ADDED

How does a Department of Education program designed to reduce school violence get targeted by the President as the cause of a school shooting?

Late on Sunday, March 11th, in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the White House announced that it would create a new School Safety Commission, led by Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, that would consider repealing an Obama's "Rethink School Discipline" policies.

Obama's policies, introduced in 2014, detailed shocking disparities in how black and white students were being disciplined in public schools. They stated that schools that disparately disciplined black students would be investigated and might be sued. And they provided a suite of resources to help schools to implement Restorative Justice (RJ) and Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs to reduce discipline disparities and make schools safer. These deeper learning approaches can help teachers, staff members, and students expand their social and emotional faculties so students, especially emotionally troubled students, can process deep pains rather than reacting to them through violent acts. Rescinding these policies threatens to make our schools less safe.

Endemic Exclusion, and a Brave Solution

Rescission also threatens to make our schools more unfair. In 2014, the Department of Education and Department of Justice's Dear Colleague letter and subsequent data snapshot showed that, compared to white students, black students were more than two times more likely to be suspended, referred to law enforcement, or subjected to school-related arrests; more than three times more likely to be expelled; and more than four times more likely to be suspended multiple times. Perhaps most troubling, black preschoolers were more than four times more likely to be suspended multiple times.

SDH Chart.png

Data adapted from the Department of Education, Civil Rights Division's March 2014 Data Snapshot on School Discipline. Chart created by author.

Given evidence that black students do not commit more in-school offenses than white students, this data suggested that black students are being suspended, expelled, referred to law enforcement, and arrested at unjustifiably disparate rates. Faced with shocking proof of disparate impact, the Departments of Education and Justice clarified school districts' obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, unequivocally stating that "[f]ederal law prohibits public school districts from discriminating in the administration of student discipline." They also warned that they would not hesitate to investigate discrimination and repossess federal funds if necessary. Finally, they provided guidance to help school districts avoid engaging in the kinds of discrimination that would lead to investigation, litigation, and repossession of substantial federal funds.

But the departments did not stop at threats. They also provided opportunities for deeper learning aimed at improving school climates, granting over $70 million and publishing a suite of supports to help districts expand Restorative Justice and Social and Emotional Learning programs. Many schools seized this opportunity, not simply to alleviate discipline disparities impacting students of color, but to also increase all of their staff and students' social and emotional skills so students could process deep pains and become stable, safe, valued, and connected members of their school communities. Those districts that successfully took this deeper learning approach are reporting huge reductions in school violence, related reductions in discipline disparities, improvements in school climate, and gains in learning.

For example, Oakland Unified School District used over $300,000 in School Climate Transformation Grant funding to build on its success in expanding Restorative Justice (RJ), Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), three models that have improved many schools' climates while reducing discipline disparities. Using the funding, OUSD grew the number of schools using RJ to 35 of its 86 schools, and grew the number of schools using PBIS to 66. The district also launched a district wide initiative to provide school personnel, security personnel, and police officers with training in RJ and trauma-informed de-escalation practices. Suspensions dropped by 57 percent district-wide, and black suspensions dropped by 53 percent. And prior research showed that OUSD schools implementing whole school RJ programs were more likely to see drops in suspensions, chronic absenteeism, and high school dropouts; and increases in reading levels and graduation rates, suggesting that the district wide improvements OUSD experienced were partially driven by the increases in funding under the School Climate Transformation Grant program that allowed OUSD to expand RJ to 35 schools (up from 24 in 2014).

The Threat of Rescission

It goes without saying that rescinding a policy that has helped school districts around the country reduce rates of suspension and expulsion, and reduce disparities in exclusionary discipline, could encourage disparities to creep back up. However, what may be less obvious is that rescinding the policies may actually discourage districts from teaching students the social and emotional skills that ensure fewer--and hopefully, one day, none--of them become the school shooters of tomorrow.

After Adam Lanza killed 28 people and injured 2 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy put together an impressive commission to provide recommendations that could help avoid the next school shooting. The commission's thorough, 277 page report did not mince words, arguing that "[o]ur educational system has prioritized children's cognitive development at the expense of their social and emotional development" even as "[r]esearch clearly demonstrates . . . that social and emotional learning (SEL) curricula have a positive impact on children's development and actually enhance their academic progress" and "can help children identify and name feelings, including feelings such as frustration, anger, and loneliness that potentially contribute to disruptive and self-destructive behaviors. It can also teach children how to employ social problem-solving skills to manage difficult emotions and potentially conflictual situations, avoid and prevent risky behaviors, and establish and nurture positive social relationships." In short, the commission argued that to avoid another Sandy Hook, "[s]ocial-emotional learning should form an integral part of the curriculum from preschool through high school" as a "pervasive component of the school environment that informs the culture of the school and the behavior of adult educators."

Obama's policies have helped many school districts make quantum leaps in enhancing the social and emotional capacities of their staff and students. It is possible that these programs are helping students process and overcome painful experiences, troubling influences, and violent urges; and allowing them to become safe members of their school communities. In addition to robbing students of opportunities for deeper learning, rescinding these policies could have the perverse effect of stopping one of the federal policies helping to make our schools safer for all students.

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