Will Indiana Adopt Federalized School Discipline Plans?

Photo Credit: Drew Tarvin (CC-By-2.0)

In light of the failures of Broward County Public Schools administrators to report the Florida shooter to law enforcement, the recent passage of legislation that would allow the same thing to happen in Indiana has caught parents by surprise. It’s unclear whether Governor Holcomb will sign the bill, but parents and teachers are hoping that he will recognize the potential threats it presents to school safety.

HB 1421 provides that the state department of education “must” have a model discipline plan which will (1) reduce out-of-school suspension and disproportionality in discipline and expulsion; (2) limit referrals to law enforcement and arrests on school property to cases in which referral or arrest is necessary to protect the health and safety of students or school employees.

This language may seem harmless, but a similar discipline policy prohibited Broward County Public Schools from arresting the shooter for a long list of prior offenses. The discipline policy in question limits the involvement of law enforcement to student offenses that pose a serious threat to the school or students. A raft of misdemeanor offenses must be handled by the school, such as fights, theft, vandalism, criminal mischief, harassment, drug possession, and threats, to name just a few. Only after a fifth offense during a school year would a student be suspended, expelled, or referred to law enforcement.

It’s likely that adoption of such policies by BCPS and the Indiana state legislature was motivated by federal guidance issued in 2014 by the United States Department of Education (USED). The guidance, which is still in effect, requires schools to reduce the number of students receiving exclusionary punishments (sent to the principal’s office, suspended, expelled, or arrested). According to USED, exclusionary discipline is ineffective at improving student behavior, creates the potential for negative educational outcomes, and contributes to the “school to prison pipeline.”

The Florida shooting has provoked numerous calls to reverse this guidance. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked Secretary of Education Betsy Devos to do so, stating that “disturbing reports have indicated that federal guidance may have contributed to systemic failures to report Nikolas Cruz’s dangerous behaviors to local law enforcement.” So far, Devos hasn’t indicated a willingness to take action.

According to analysis from Manhattan Institute researcher Max Eden, Broward County isn’t the only area to have suffered under these discipline policies:

In New York City, a majority of students at half of schools serving a high share of minority students said they saw more fights and that their peers were less respectful [since non-exclusionary policies were implemented] In Chicago, peer respect deteriorated and teachers reported more disruptive behavior. In St. Paul, the district attorney declared school violence a “public-health crisis.” In Syracuse, the district attorney ordered a restoration of discipline after violence surged and a teacher was stabbed. In East Baton Rouge, 60 percent of teachers say they’ve experienced an increase in violence or threats, and 41 percent say they don’t feel safe in school.

Supporters of these discipline policies deny that they have failed in these schools. They cite statistics showing that the number of suspensions, expulsions, and school-arrests have declined since implementation. But as Eden points out, not issuing these punishments for student offenses doesn’t mean the offenses aren’t occurring. Moreover, a student must commit the same offense (including misdemeanors, such as assault) four or five times before the student can be suspended.

Removing the threat of expulsion or arrest doesn’t make students less likely to break the rules. On the contrary — it emboldens offenders, and students and teachers feel less secure. It’s remarkable this obvious fact has been lost on Indiana legislators.

The superintendent of the high school involved in the Parkland, Florida shooting, Robert Runcie, has claimed that policies he implemented to limit the use of law enforcement referrals (as HB 1421 does) resulted in the schools’ becoming safer. According to school surveys, however, the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas had a different perception; the percent of students who agreed that the school provided a safe environment fell from 66% in 2009-2010 to 38% in 2014-2015.

Considering the evidence showing these discipline policies make schools less safe and even dangerous, why would Indiana legislators even consider adopting HB 1421? Do they fear the loss of federal funding if they don’t revise state law to accommodate these policies? If so, they have short memories. Parents are still feeling the burn after the state adopted Common Core for the same reason. If state legislators believe their constituencies will support them in sacrificing their children’s safety in exchange for compliance with federal intimidation, they are sadly mistaken.