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Trump panel advocates rescinding Obama-era school discipline rules

December 19, 2018

President Donald Trump’s school safety commission on Tuesday called for a rollback of an Obama-era initiative to reduce suspensions and expulsions of students of color and those with disabilities — guidance that had been embraced by Minnesota education and human rights officials.

The panel’s proposal suggests that efforts to curb racial disparities in school discipline have the potential of making schools less safe.

“Where well-meaning but flawed policies endanger student safety, they must be changed,” the commission wrote in a document obtained by the New York Times.

In Minnesota, the move comes just months after the state Department of Human Rights secured agreements with 41 school districts and charter school systems to work to reduce discipline disparities — or else face investigations into possible discrimination.

On Tuesday, one of the districts, Osseo Area Schools, pledged to stay the course: “We remain committed to the elimination of racial disparities in discipline, whether or not there is federal guidance to do so,” district spokeswoman Barbara Olson said in a statement.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius described a potential rollback on protections of students who are disproportionately suspended as “unconscionable.”

“Those protections should be retained as fundamental in our work to provide students with their right to an equitable education,” she said.

The 2014 Obama administration guidelines — like those suggested now by the Trump panel — were not binding on districts.

But critics say some school systems erred in the ways in which they heeded advice to lower suspension rates. In St. Paul, former Superintendent Valeria Silva was dogged by criticism that she and her administration were weak on discipline.

Deborah York, a former Edina teacher whose career ended when she was assaulted by a student, said Tuesday she welcomed a new approach to discipline.

“To me, there definitely has to be a balance,” she said, between addressing the needs of students of color and those with disabilities and holding students accountable if they misbehave. That accountability could bring with it the services students need to get on track, she said.

Mental health care and building security are among the topics addressed in the panel’s 177-page report, according to the Washington Post.

The group was formed in the wake of the Feb. 14 school massacre in Parkland, Fla.

On the subject of gun violence, the commission urged states to adopt laws allowing “extreme risk protection orders,” or court orders that temporarily restrict access to firearms for people found to pose risks to themselves or other, the Associated Press reported.

But it recommends against raising the minimum age to buy a firearm, generally 18 in most states, saying there is no evidence it would reduce killings.

Said Cassellius, “Solutions that don’t involve common-sense gun restrictions are merely empty promises and fall short of the full protection our children deserve.”

Asked for its take on the panel’s recommendations, St. Paul Public Schools focused on gun violence, saying it continued to oppose arming teachers as well as any attempts to weaken gun control laws. Left unaddressed was its agreement with the state Human Rights Department to work to reduce discipline disparities.

According to the department, students of color accounted for 66 percent of all suspensions and expulsions in 2015-16 even though they represented only 31 percent of the state’s student population.

Black students in the state were eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers, and American Indian students were 10 times more likely — disparities worse than those reported nationally.

Several districts — St. Paul, Osseo, Duluth, Eden Prairie and Edina, among them — have committed to steps that include directing police who work in their schools to steer clear of investigating or recommending discipline for students for missteps that do not involve a crime.

Earlier this year, in his push for local action, state Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey noted that a large percentage of student suspensions statewide were based on “subjective reasons that did not involve physical harm to others, weapons or illegal drugs.”

The department did not respond on Tuesday to a request for comment.

The Associated Press, Washington Post and New York Times contributed to this report.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109

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