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Trump administration eyes rolling back Obama-era school discipline policies

Instead of focusing on gun control, the administration is calling to reverse rules intended to protect black students from disproportionate punishment.

A school safety commission created by President Donald Trump in the wake of the massacre in Parkland, Florida, has recommended that an Obama-era policy to reduce racial disparities in school discipline be rescinded, according to a report released by the panel on Tuesday.

The Federal Commission on School Safety said that it was "deeply troubled" by the Obama administration's 2014 guidance, which warned schools that they could be violating federal law if their discipline policies targeted minority students at higher rates.

"Maintaining order in schools is a key to keeping schools safe," the report said, adding that the previous guidance "undercut the ability of local officials to address the impact of disciplinary matters on school safety."

Image: FILE PHOTO - U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor Maryland
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 23, 2017.Joshua Roberts / Reuters file

The school safety report is the result of nearly a year of efforts by the commission, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Student activists led the charge in calling for gun control in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this year that killed 17 students and staff. But the commission did not make guns its focus, instead scrutinizing the Obama-era discipline policies, mental health, crisis management and press coverage of mass shootings, among other issues.

“The report makes no recommendations to address the common denominator in school tragedies — easy access to assault-style firearms designed for the battlefield," said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the incoming chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. "Rather than confronting the role of guns in gun violence, the Trump administration blames school shootings on civil rights enforcement."

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning, a senior Trump administration official said that the White House was considering ending the discipline policies because individuals with a "history of anti-social, trending toward violent behavior were left unpunished or left unchecked."

The Obama administration implemented the guidance after finding that black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, among other disparities. The guidance warned that school discipline policies that had a disproportionate impact on students of a particular race or other protected category could be in violation federal civil rights law, even if the policies were not intended to be discriminatory.

Civil rights advocates slammed the panel's recommendation to reverse the guidance. "It sends the message that the Department of Education is comfortable with racial discrimination in our schools," said Liz King, director of education policy at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of civil rights groups.

Conservatives have long criticized the Obama-era guidance as unlawful federal overreach. The backlash ramped up after the Parkland massacre, when reports surfaced that the accused shooter, Nikolas Cruz, had been assigned to a new discipline program that permitted students who commit certain offenses to attend an alternative school instead of being referred to law enforcement.

In March, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote a letter to DeVos suggesting that the Obama discipline guidance "may have contributed to systemic failures to report Nikolas Cruz's dangerous behaviors to local law enforcement," urging the Trump administration to roll back the policy.

Over the summer, a Florida state commission concluded that the program was not connected to the shooting. "It's a red herring, it's immaterial," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the commission's chair, said in July. "The community needs to know that that has nothing to do with what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School."

But the discipline guidance remained a central target of DeVos' safety commission. The report cited criticism from teachers who said the policies undermined their authority in the classroom, as well as concerns that the guidance was legally dubious.

Max Schachter, whose son was killed in the Parkland massacre, advocated for the discipline guidance to be reversed.

"The policy of having no consequences and the culture to not arrest leads to kids being more violent," Schachter said in an interview last week.