The Administration’s Response to School Shootings: Punish Black and Brown Students

Following the shooting at Parkland last February, Trump appointed a commission to make recommendations on school safety. It will come as a surprise to no one that the report issued by the commission on Tuesday recommends that individual schools and states consider arming teachers, but excludes any reference to the common sense gun safety measures advocated by student survivors.

Beyond the commission’s recommendations about guns (or lack thereof), the most specific policy proposal aims to jumpstart the school-to-prison pipeline for students of color.

The report’s primary federal recommendation—to rescind the controversial Obama-era racial discipline guidelines—became a cause célèbre for some on the right, after reports emerged showing that school officials were aware that the Parkland gunman had exhibited clearly troubling behavior, including drinking gasoline, cutting himself and owning a gun he intended to use.

The guidelines, published in 2014, had long been the focus of conservative dislike, and Mrs. DeVos had targeted them for elimination even before the Parkland shooting. The policy warned schools to ensure they weren’t suspending or expelling black and Hispanic students at higher rates than their white peers, and suggested models schools could adopt to reduce their reliance on punishment.

Let’s cut to the chase and deal with some facts. If the purpose of these recommendations was to prevent school shootings, it is important to keep in mind that the offenders have overwhelmingly been white males. Rolling back the previous administration’s efforts to address the fact that students of color are disproportionately suspended, expelled, and/or arrested represents nothing more than a racist distraction from the issue this commission was supposed to address.

When the Obama administration initiated their efforts to address the school-to-prison pipeline, this is the problem they had identified:

Although black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection’s 2009-10 statistics from 72,000 schools in 7,000 districts, serving about 85 percent of the nation’s students. The data covered students from kindergarten age through high school.

One in five black boys and more than one in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

And in districts that reported expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, Hispanic and black students represent 45 percent of the student body, but 56 percent of those expelled under such policies.

At the time, Sec. of Education Arne Duncan correctly called this the civil rights issue of our generation.

Back in 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder gave the commencement address at Maryland’s Morgan State University. It came on the heels of Cliven Bundy’s remarks about African Americans being better off during slavery and LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks to his girlfriend. Here is how Holder responded to those incidents:

Over the last few weeks and months, we’ve seen occasional, jarring reminders of the discrimination – and the isolated, repugnant, racist views – that in some places have yet to be overcome. These incidents have received substantial media coverage. And they have rightly been condemned by leaders, commentators, and citizens from all backgrounds and walks of life.

But we ought not find contentment in the fact that these high-profile expressions of outright bigotry seem atypical and were met with such swift condemnation. Because if we focus solely on these incidents – on outlandish statements that capture national attention and spark outrage on Facebook and Twitter – we are likely to miss the more hidden, and more troubling, reality behind the headlines.

These outbursts of bigotry, while deplorable, are not the true markers of the struggle that still must be waged, or the work that still needs to be done – because the greatest threats do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. They are more subtle. They cut deeper. And their terrible impact endures long after the headlines have faded and obvious, ignorant expressions of hatred have been marginalized…

Codified segregation of public schools has been barred since Brown. But in too many of our school districts, significant divisions persist and segregation has reoccurred – including zero-tolerance school discipline practices that, while well-intentioned and aimed at promoting school safety, affect black males at a rate three times higher than their white peers.

First of all, let’s note that Holder was ahead of his time in using Hillary Clinton’s infamous word “deplorable” to describe those examples of overt racism. But his remarks are extremely applicable to what is happening in this country today.

When Donald Trump or some other Republican utters something deplorable, it captures national attention and even some conservatives are forced to distance themselves from that kind of overt racism. But the recommendations from this school safety commission are exactly the kind of thing Holder was referring to when he talked about things that happen away from screaming headlines that are more subtle, but cut deeper.

Feeding more black and brown students into the school-to-prison pipeline won’t get a fraction of the attention we all paid to the president’s remarks about “shithole” countries. But Donald Trump and his administration aren’t guilty of simply saying racist things. Every day they are putting those words into action in a way that is cruel and harmful to people of color. That is the real outrage.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .