March 23, 2018

Booker, Kaine, Gillibrand Lead Colleagues in Urging Education Department to Focus on School Safety, Not Scapegoats

Senators criticize Education Department for misplaced focus on 2014 directive on school discipline in aftermath of Parkland shooting 

WASHINGTON, D.C.  – U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) led nine of their colleagues in urging the Department of Education to focus more on tangible ways to prevent gun violence in schools, instead of blaming last month’s shooting in Parkland, Florida on a 2014 directive on school discipline. That directive encouraged schools to examine disparities in discipline rates in an effort to prevent potentially discriminatory discipline policies.

“As the work of the Federal Commission on School Safety begins, we write to urge you to focus on meaningful reforms to improve gun safety and prevent gun violence, instead of focusing on distractions that will take us backwards,” the Senators wrote in a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “Examining and potentially revoking the 2014 Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline will not address issues of gun violence and instead will leave schools less informed and without guidance on how to uphold the civil rights of students of color and students with disabilities while administering school discipline.”

“Rather than blame the 2014 [Dear Colleague letter], we should be addressing our lax system of background checks and minimum age for firearm purchase, both of which allow too many mass shooters to gain access to weapons of war,” the Senators added.

Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Edward Markey (D-MA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Michael Bennet (D-CO) also signed onto the letter.

Full text of the letter is below.

The Honorable Betsy DeVos

Secretary

U.S. Department of Education

400 Maryland Avenue, SW

Washington, D.C. 20202

Dear Secretary DeVos,

As the work of the Federal Commission on School Safety begins, we write to urge you to focus on meaningful reforms to improve gun safety and prevent gun violence, instead of focusing on distractions that will take us backwards. Examining and potentially revoking the 2014 Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline (2014 DC) will not address issues of gun violence and instead will leave schools less informed and without guidance on how to uphold the civil rights of students of color and students with disabilities while administering school discipline.

Focusing on the 2014 DC is a distraction from the fact that Nikolas Cruz was able to easily purchase an assault style rifle and ammunition and murder 17 students and teachers in the horrific shooting in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018. Rather than blame the 2014 DC, we should be addressing our lax system of background checks and minimum age for firearm purchase, both of which have allowed mass shooters to gain access to weapons of war. In addition, we should also be discussing how the Dickey Amendment has played a role in preventing research on gun violence as a public health issue and what more can be done to advance this research. Finally, we should be examining why assault weapons designed to inflict mass casualties are even made available for purchase by civilians.

In addition to taking meaningful steps to address gun safety, we must also examine federal investment in our schools and our teachers. For the past two budget years, the Trump Administration has proposed eliminating funding for programs that would improve school climate and provide teachers with the resources and support that they need to help struggling students succeed. Programs like ESSA’s Title IV-A Student Success and Academic Enrichment Grant program and the Title II-A State and Local Grants for Teacher and School Leader Development play a critical role in providing these resources. We should be investing in our schools, teachers, administrators, and support personnel so they can address the needs of students and provide them with the support they need.

The 2014 DC clarified that schools “must administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.”[1] It encouraged schools to examine disparities in discipline rates and to prevent discriminatory policies. The guidance reminds schools of their obligation to avoid and redress racial discrimination and provides recommendations to assist schools in developing school discipline policies that are non-discriminatory. This guidance is needed to protect some of our most vulnerable students, including children of color and students with disabilities, who have been subject to strict discipline practices that disproportionately remove them from the classroom.[2]

Data from the years preceding the 2014 guidance found that black children represented only 18 percent of preschool enrollment but they made up 48 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension, while white students represented 43 percent of preschool enrollment but only 26 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out of school suspension. Further, this report found that students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as students without disabilities. Lastly, while black students represented 16 percent of student enrollment, they represented 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students subjected to school related arrest. In comparison, white students represented 51 percent of enrollment, 41 percent of students referred to law enforcement, and 39 percent of those arrested.[3] 

Evidence has shown that overly harsh disciplinary policies push students from the classroom into the juvenile justice system.[4] Once in the juvenile justice system, these students are less likely to return to school, more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system, and less likely to be successful in the labor market.[5] The 2014 DC was designed to address these issues and help stop practices that lead to students being pushed out of school and into the juvenile justice system. Any attempt to simply blame the 2014 guidance for the recent school shooting in Parkland is incredibly misguided and irresponsible. Instead, we need to be discussing common sense gun reforms and investing more fully in our teachers and school climate initiatives.

Gun violence led to the events in Parkland, and we are concerned that the 2014 directive is being used as a scapegoat to divert conversation away from meaningful conversations around gun reform and school funding issues.  As the Administration and Congress works through these issues, in light of the events in Parkland, we ask that you protect the 2014 DC and that you instead examine the most immediate causes of gun violence facing our nations’ schools, such as the minimum age for firearms purchases and background checks.

Thank you for your attention to this very important matter.

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