Nicole Landers, a mother from the Baltimore area, found out the hard way that her Maryland public school cannot be trusted even to perform that most basic task: “As a parent you think you can trust the school system to protect your child.”
Unbeknownst to her and thousands of parents around the country until recently, the Landers’ school system is reporting to a higher authority: U.S. Department of Education investigations that push schools to implement so-called “reconciliatory justice” discipline programs and encourage administrators to turn a blind eye, even to behavior that rises to the level of criminal offense, in order to lower suspensions, expulsions, and juvenile arrests.
Landers’ first conflict with her public school came when her 17-year-old son witnessed a high school classmate threaten a third student with a knife and reported it to the school authorities under promised anonymity. A week later, the knife-wielding student threatened her son for making the report, and Landers found the school’s response frustrating at every turn. She filed a separate report with the police, who told her that if it happened again, her son should step off campus and call 911.
“We don’t know what happens in the school,” she says the officers told her. Still, the school claimed it couldn’t remove the threatening student from her son’s bus route or classes.
“The other student has rights, too,” she says administrators told her.
Landers didn’t know it at the time, but it was the first of many times she would hear that phrase in place of disciplinary action against students who endangered her children with behavior went far beyond the normal playground spats most of us remember from our own childhoods.
According to Landers, her 12-year-old daughter and two other girls were consistently sexually harassed by a boy in their grade. After nothing came of the reports she filed, the boy escalated to touching her daughter inappropriately in school. Regardless, she says, the school only offered these girls unfulfilled promises and, of course, “the other student has rights.”
Last fall, Landers’ nine-year-old son was severely bullied, enduring attacks like being hit in the face and thrown into the mud. Because of them, she says, he told her over Christmas that he was suicidal.
“My fourth grader [told] me he doesn’t want to live anymore on account of a student who will not leave him alone,” she said, breaking down for the first time in our conversation. Yet, she said, the school still effectively did nothing. “The other student has rights,” she heard again. Sadly, Landers’ story is not unique.
A Pattern of Ignored School Violence
In 2016, according to police reports, a San Diego teacher’s aide walked in on a 15-year-old, developmentally disabled male student raping his classmate, a severely disabled boy with cerebral palsy who cannot speak more than a few simple words. Despite an interview where the student admitted to the crime and statements from witnesses, the case was cancelled for lack of evidence, reports the Voice of San Diego (VDS).
The victim’s mother didn’t even hear that the incident had been as severe as it was until a year later, she said. The school administration told her the aide had interrupted the boys before the assault actually occurred, and labeled the offense an “obscene act”—a category that does not require expulsion—in official paperwork. Despite this incident and 11 others of sexual or violent offences, the student was transferred to another school in the district, VDS reported.
In New York City, where Mayor DeBlasio touts an alleged decrease in the number of crimes on K-12 campuses, a student recently stabbed his classmates, killing one and sending the other to the hospital. The director of the school safety officers’ union told The New York Post, “Let’s say a kid brings a box-cutter, a razor blade… those were [once] offenses where those weapons would be confiscated, vouchered in a precinct and documented in a juvenile report.” “Those things are not happening now,” he continued.
Instead, principals are under pressure to handle incidents like knives in school “in house” and not to report them. Sometimes that even means violent students have their weapons returned to them, so as not to create a bad report.
Making Rules that Endanger Kids
Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute has documented how these same discipline policies allowed the Parkland, Florida school shooter to slip through the school discipline cracks without an arrest record. An arrest record would have prevented him from legally buying the gun with which he murdered 17 people. Broward County, site of the Parkland shooting, was one of the nation’s first school districts to implement “restorative justice” policies the Obama Department of Education pushed on school districts. Dozens of similar stories have come out since the Parkland shooting.
If parents were looking for help from the Trump administration in Washington, they have thus far been disappointed. While Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is “considering” repealing the Obama administration’s Dear Colleague guidance letter that pushed these discipline policies, the department has taken no action beyond meeting with Landers and others whose children have suffered under the new discipline policies.
Both national teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, support the guidance as a way to fight “institutional racism,” despite rank-and-file teachers reporting declining school safety, as well as being assaulted and threatened. Even if the guidance is repealed, the progressive cultural forces in favor of “restorative justice” rather than traditional disciplinary practices will remain, as they did in Broward County, which adopted the practice well before and even inspired the Obama-era federal guidance.
School Choice Is the Only Solution for Powerless Parents
For too long, conservatives have treated school choice as a back burner issue. But the Left has taken over large parts of the public school system, introducing values and structures that many families find abhorrent. Sometimes, as with these Department of Education discipline investigations, these transformations take place behind the scenes, and parents only become aware of how the district operates when their children slam headlong into the effects.
If Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie and his friends at USDOE want to push leniency instead of discipline and allow dangerous students endless “second chances,” let them implement their policies with families and students who have voluntarily bought in to their ideas.
“Parents are done with it, and we’re on the move… if you don’t make changes we’re going to take our children out of your school,” says Landers, who has started a Facebook group to help parents share their stories and organize.
A pediatric nurse married to a small business owner, and mother to a child with special needs, Landers and her family are trying to figure out how to afford sending all her kids to private school, whether that’s one parent picking up a second job, or quitting to homeschool. Both would bring serious financial difficulties.
Conservatives should fight, through programs like universal education savings accounts, to give the Landerses, and every family, the ability to seek education that accords with their values and responsibility to keep their children safe. Only by empowering them over the dollars they pay as taxpayers, and sent in their children’s names to the public schools that have served them so poorly, can we ensure that the system has an incentive to change.
When the “restorative justice” that led to such tragic consequences in Broward County, San Diego, Baltimore, and elsewhere comes to your district, do you want to be powerless? Without the financial leverage broad school choice affords middle-class parents, Broward County’s discipline experiment is coming soon to a district near you. Landers left me with a warning for parents across the country: “We’re going to repeat Parkland… and worse.”