Dangerous calls from activists to “defund the police,” including school police, were splashed across the headlines over the summer. Now officials in one school district at the forefront of the movement are having second thoughts.
Minneapolis Public School officials were among the first to announce they were canceling their contract with local law enforcement for school security after the tragic incident involving George Floyd occurred in that city. That the episode happened in Minneapolis was the only thing connecting local public schools, law enforcement, and Floyd. The incident had nothing to do with school safety nor the performance of local law enforcement in the schools.
The Board of Education had been looking to make such a move since at least 2017, and the heightened attention to police and racial unrest this year allowed the board to appear responsive to current events, even if the policy makes schools less safe in the event of a violent incident.
According to recent reports, however, these same school officials are considering hiring private security contractors who have backgrounds in — you guessed it — law enforcement. The vote to disband the district’s contract with local police might have been a nod to “woke” activists, but the board appears to lack confidence in the change.
It’s hard to blame them. Minneapolis school officials and others made similar moves to adopt progressive ideas for school safety and student discipline in the past, even if the research did not substantiate those ideas.
In line with a federal directive issued under the Obama administration in 2014, Minneapolis school officials use school discipline policies to lower the figure of minority students and children with special needs who faced suspension or expulsion, called “exclusionary discipline.” The district’s stated discipline policy aims to reduce “suspensions and out-of-class time, especially for our African American males and students receiving special education services,” putting data collection ahead of student behavior.
Research demonstrates that limiting exclusionary discipline does not improve student learning nor make members of a school community feel safer. We all agree that racist acts are a blight on our society, but a survey of the research on school discipline says that “once prior [student] misbehavior is taken into account, the racial differences in severity of discipline melt away,” a finding representative of the literature on this topic.
The Obama administration’s 2014 letter on school discipline threatened to investigate schools if minority students faced exclusionary discipline at higher per capita rates than white students. Large school districts around the country, such as Broward County, Florida, and the Los Angeles Unified School District, were either already limiting suspensions and expulsions in schools before the letter or did so after the administration issued the missive.
Quota-based systems that discipline students differently depending on their race or ethnicity do not take into account critical factors that affect behavior and misbehavior. Examples include the concentration of minority students from single-parent families, as well as the concentration of dangerous neighborhoods near a particular school. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago, to name a few, suggest such factors are important.
To improve these conditions, families deserve robust policy solutions. They need more opportunities to choose how and where students learn through charter schools and private school scholarships, not manufactured data reports on discipline.
The Trump administration appropriately rescinded the Obama-era Dear Colleague letter that limited school discipline because the research didn’t support it and because the “disparate impact” standard on which the letter was based is simply unlawful. Under the disparate impact theory, a public policy that affects proportionately more minority individuals would still be deemed discriminatory even when it does not seek to discriminate by treating people differently according to their race.
Disparate impact theory continues to drive discipline policies in some school systems today, including Seattle and Milwaukee. While the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to strike down disparate impact directly, ample opinions demonstrate the legal problems with basing policy on this philosophy. As the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said in 1997 in People Who Care v. Rockford Board of Education:
Racial disciplinary quotas violate equity in its root sense. They entail either systematically overpunishing the innocent or systematically underpunishing the guilty. They place race at war with justice. They teach schoolchildren an unedifying lesson of racial entitlements.
If Minneapolis school officials and other educators across the country want to keep students safe, they should abandon student discipline policies based on quotas. Teachers and parents — those adults closest to children every day — should work together to evaluate each incident on its own merits and make decisions in a child’s best interests regardless of his or her race.