Feds Fuel the School to Prison Pipeline

The Federal Commission on School Safety issued its report today. Unfortunately, rather than providing a blueprint for improving school safety, this report fails to take necessary action to limit youth access to weapons and calls for rescinding important progress that the Obama administration made in reforming school discipline procedures. At the outset, the report lists 32 school shootings that have taken place since 1979, 3 of which occurred this year. Despite this focus on school shootings, however, the report, signed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, refuses to recommend age restrictions for firearm purchases under the guise that most school shooters obtain their weapons from families or friends. The report’s answer to this problem is to offer training on safe storage of firearms, rather than to enhance penalties for transfer of weapons to minors. Even worse, the report is silent regarding imposing any restrictions on assault style weapons that have caused virtually every mass shooting in school and elsewhere in our nation. 


Fortunately, the report does contain some good recommendations, including:

  • Improving school climate through character education and combating cyberbullying;
  • Improving school based access to mental health and counseling services;
  • Taking steps to improve threat assessment; and
  • Improving school security plans.

However, in an effort that is likely to fuel the school to prison pipeline, the report proposes to rescind school discipline guidance issued by the Obama administration. I previously summarized the Obama administration guidance which promoted positive behavioral supports rather than suspensions for students with behavioral challenges. The new report, without evidence, claims that the Obama administration’s guidance actually “may have paradoxically made schools less safe.” In a weak attempt to make bolster its case, the new report challenges the statistical evidence that there is racial and disability discrimination which fuels the school to prison pipeline when schools implement harsh disciplinary measures in an allegedly neutral matter. It goes on to claim that it simply does not matter if these harsh disciplinary measures have a statistically disproportionate impact on racial minorities. In fact, the report states that the federal government will only investigate school discipline matters if there is evidence of intentional discrimination.

Sadly, the long history of allegedly neutral zero tolerance school discipline policies has resulted in a grossly disproportionate impact on students of color and students with disabilities. Not only does this fuel the school to prison pipeline resulting in racial and disability disparities in our prison population, but it also exacerbates racial and disability achievement disparities because children who are not in school simply do not learn. As the Obama administration’s guidance noted, in the 2013-14 school year, nationwide 10% of all children with disabilities were suspended for 10 days or less, and that rate rises to 19% for children of color with disabilities.


Fortunately, the current administration cannot mandate that school districts that have reformed their disciplinary policies in response to the Obama administration’s guidelines, return to their antiquated zero tolerance methods of discipline with clear discriminatory impact. More worrisome, however, is the current administration’s clear intention to refuse to investigate claims of disciplinary discrimination based on clear statistical disparate impact. This refusal is a clear signal to school districts that have a long history of policies which fuel the school to prison pipeline with a disproportionate number of children of color as well as those with disabilities, that they are free to continue doing so.

Ironically, the report also recommends that schools create an environment in which students feel comfortable reporting suspicious behavior to authorities. While that may  be a good idea, such an environment cannot be created when students of color and those with disabilities fear that they are targets of harsh zero tolerance policies. Instead, those students are more likely to do their best to stay off the radar thereby avoiding detection which could have prevented a serious problem if they did not feel like they had a target on their back.

The report goes on to support better training for police and security guards who are stationed in our nation’s schools. However, the report fails to mention that the training should needs to emphasize the need for social and emotional learningas implemented in the Oakland Unified School District in California. Nor does the report mention the need for police to understand how the teen brain works.

Of course, there is likely to be much more discussion of this 177 page report. But its abject failure to take a serious look at gun control, and its push to rescind the Obama administration school discipline guidelines are unlikely to make our schools safer and more likely to fuel the school to prison pipeline.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.


2 thoughts on “Feds Fuel the School to Prison Pipeline

  1. Thank-you for this information although I am sad. Actually, to be truthful, I am sad with a tinge of anger. After 23 years as an elementary school counselor, I watch developments. The recent Center for Disease Control focus on trauma informed care support similar guidelines as the Obama guidelines. As a ray of hope, I have seen energy stem from this body of knowledge. I hope that the positive changes keep school people and parents as believers in the initiatives.

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