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School Safety Commission Report and DOE Withdrawal of Discipline Guidance: What Does It Mean for Schools?

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December 21, 2018

The 180-page report of the Federal Commission on School Safety is out, and garnering significant media attention. The U.S. Department of Education also announced this afternoon that, based on the Commission’s recommendation, it is withdrawing the 2014 Dear Colleague Letter on Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline and related Office for Civil Rights (OCR) policy documents. What do these changes mean for schools? This alert contains a summary of some of the key potential impacts.

  1. Unfunded . . . suggestions. After the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, earlier this year, the White House charged the Commission with studying and providing recommendations to increase school safety. The Commission report does not include any mandates, but is replete with suggestions to prevent, protect and mitigate against, and respond to and recover from school safety incidents in public schools. These include recommendations for support for character education and positive school climate initiatives, school-based mental health and counseling services, systems for reporting suspicious activity and conducting threat assessments, and Internet safety measures and entertainment rating systems. The Commission also suggests that schools increase training for school personnel related to school safety, implement risk assessments and security plans to increase campus security, and support active shooter preparedness at school. What these things have in common is that they don’t come cheap, and the report has already been criticized for not calling for additional federal funding to implement the recommendations, especially those related to mental health and positive school culture. Schools should begin to think now how to budget for and respond to the community demands and actual mandates that may come in response to the report.
  2. Withdrawal of discipline guidance. It should not come as a surprise, considering the significant number of Obama-era guidance documents that the Trump Education Department has withdrawn, that the Commission’s report recommends and the DOE agreed to withdraw the guidance related to school discipline issued in January 2014 by the Departments of Education and Justice. That guidance, which we covered when released, explained the administration’s position that schools could violate federal civil rights laws if their discipline policies, though not intentionally discriminatory, had a disparate impact on students of color or students with disabilities. Withdrawal of the guidance is unlikely to require revisions to school discipline policies and practices, and schools in Illinois must continue to comply with the procedures mandated by SB 100. There is a chance that schools may face more scrutiny or criticism of their discipline practices by those who agree with the report that stricter discipline measures lead to safer schools. Schools should evaluate their policies and begin to think about how to communicate to their communities that their discipline practices appropriately balance student rights and student safety.
  3. Arming teachers. The Commission’s report encourages states and districts to consider arming teachers, echoing the President’s recommendations to that effect. The report also recommends hiring more military veterans and retired law enforcement officials to work in schools. Illinois law does not generally permit school staff, other than current law enforcement officers, to carry firearms at school. A recent vote by the Delegate Assembly of the Illinois Association of School Boards rejected a resolution that would have supported legislation to allow school districts to train and arm other staff, signaling a lack of support for such measures in Illinois. Schools should consider if and how the recommendations fit with their own approaches to school safety and can be implemented within the bounds of state law.

For more information about this issue, contact Jackie Wernz, Kendra Yoch, or any other Franczek Radelet attorney.

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