What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Do the recommendations from the school safety commission go far enough?

Citing a "holistic" approach to school safety, a federal commission led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has released proposals on student mental health, cyber bullying and discipline. For different perspectives on the report, Amna Nawaz talks to Catherine Lhamon, former assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, and Jeanne Allen, CEO of Center for Education Reform.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There have been 24 school shootings where someone was injured or killed this year at American public elementary, middle and high schools; 35 people have been killed, 28 of them students. Another 79 people have been injured.

    Those are the latest stats that our colleagues at Education Week have been tracking. It's one of the worst years on modern record.

    And yet there are still enormous differences of opinion about what should be done for school safety.

    President Trump and his team released their own recommendations today, and there's plenty of debates again.

    Amna Nawaz has the story for our weekly segment Making the Grade.

  • Donald Trump:

    Nothing is more important than protecting our nation's children.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    At the White House, President Trump hailed a school safety report nine months in the making.

  • Donald Trump:

    I think we have a lot of tremendous ideas here, put up by tremendous people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Federal Commission on School Safety released its findings today, with dozens of proposals for improving security at U.S. schools. They range from mental health training to cyber-bullying.

    The commission, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, formed after the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 students. The gunman, Nikolas Cruz, was a former student there.

    At the time, it was the 11th school shooting of the year. The commission consulted dozens of survivors, teachers and parents. The father of one of the Parkland victims spoke today.

  • Andrew Pollack:

    It means so much to all of us, and this president and his administration listened, and he did this. And it means a lot to all the families. And we want to thank all the administration for getting this done and making it safer for all the kids in this country. And that's what it's about.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The shooting sparked a nationwide conversation about gun control, led by students from Stoneman Douglas High School.

    They led several marches, including one a month after the shooting which drew more than a million people to Washington, D.C. President Trump and some lawmakers initially discussed a number of potential actions, including raising the minimum age to buy assault-style rifles.

    But there was no final action on raising the age. And, eventually, the president signed a law strengthening the federal background check system. Gun control advocates say action at the federal level hasn't gone far enough.

    The report stops short of recommendations on access to guns, but supports so-called red flag laws that allow a gun to be taken away from someone who poses a threat to himself or others. The commission says it took a — quote — "holistic approach" to school safety.

    Among the dozens of proposals, a call to roll back Obama era guidance for reducing racial disparities in school discipline. The administration argues those rules kept schools from taking action against potentially dangerous students. The report also calls for increased attention to mental health, citing the Parkland gunman who was expelled from school.

    The two previous secretaries of education, John B. King and Arne Duncan, released a statement calling the rollback proposal — quote — "beyond disheartening and shameful."

    The report also says individual schools should make the decision on giving teachers and school personnel firearms and training. The commission doesn't encourage schools to arm teachers, but it provides guidelines if they choose to do so.

    For the first of our two reactions to Secretary DeVos' report, I am joined by Catherine E. Lhamon, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. During the Obama administration, she was assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, where she oversaw and signed the student disciplinary guidelines that are being rescinded by today's report.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Catherine Lhamon:

    Thank you, Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the goal of this report was basically to make schools safer. You have taken a look at it. Does it do that?

  • Catherine Lhamon:

    The report has absolutely nothing to do with making schools safer.

    It expresses animus toward actually protecting students from discrimination, which is a core federal responsibility, but it doesn't take steps that will make students safer in school. And so it's a — it's a massive misstep, while also enshrining discrimination.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The animus you're talking about, that is the rolling back of those Obama era guidelines about disciplinary actions, right?

    The argument there from the administration is that, look, that prevented teachers from taking actions they needed to take against potentially dangerous students. What do you make of that?

  • Catherine Lhamon:

    That argument is absolute nonsense, including in the specific context that this commission was investigating.

    In the Parkland shooting context, that student had been disciplined. That student's disciplinary record had absolutely nothing to do with the external school shooting, which is a travesty, which is terrifying for every parent, of whom I am one, for students in schools.

    And this commission didn't take steps to figure out how to make sure the students are safe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    To just dig into this one example, though, we have heard even from some of the victims' parents who said the shooter in this case in Parkland wasn't disciplined as well as he should have. There wasn't any record of him going into this alternative detention program, and he couldn't be flagged.

    Do you think that there were failings there that are addressed by this report?

  • Catherine Lhamon:

    There may well be serious issues that need to be addressed with respect to that student. Those issues are unrelated to whether that student had access to the school with a gun to take students' lives.

    That is something that we still need to address. That has absolutely nothing to do with what are appropriate steps not to discriminate against students in the context of school discipline, unrelated to school shootings. Those two issues need to be fully separated, and both need to be appropriately addressed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is a concrete, specific recommendation here related to gun control, right, about the expansion of what we call red flag laws, of potentially taking away firearms from someone who might be dangerous in the community.

    Are you happy to see that? Do you think that that's a help?

  • Catherine Lhamon:

    Sure. I'm glad to see that there's some recommendation that is actually relevant to the topic of the commission. But I would have expected this commission actually to take steps to make sure that our students are safe.

    I'm a parent of two middle school — two students in public school. I want to know every day that, when they go to school, I have a reasonable expectation that they will come home safe to me and my family.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, what would you have wanted to have seen in this report that wasn't included?

  • Catherine Lhamon:

    I would like to see concrete steps about gun control. I would like to see concrete steps about what schools can do to make sure that those school communities are safe. I would like to see direction for our school communities about how best to keep our children safe at school.

    I didn't expect this commission or any other commission to use it as an excuse to discriminate against students in school, to use it as an excuse to roll back protections that we have been promised now for six decades by Congress about making sure that each one of us can expect not to be discriminated against based on race.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    They also do call for schools to take new ways to fund programs around mental health, around making sure that students get the support that they need. They want a broader conversation about violence in our culture, in video games, and so on.

    Is that a productive way to move this conversation forward too?

  • Catherine Lhamon:

    Mental health supports for all communities in United States are critically important. It's very important to have those conversations, not specific to school shootings, but in general, because we need to make sure that all of our health conditions are fully addressed.

    So I'm grateful to hear that there are recommendations that this condition is beginning to think about related to mental health supports with students in schools. We have too few counselors. The counselors that we do have in schools have too many students assigned to them.

    We want to make sure that we actually are able to make sure that we address all students' needs in schools. That is separate and apart from the question of how we make sure that no student is discriminated against in school on the basis of race.

    And this commission's recommendations not only don't take that seriously, but take us back several decades to the bad old days on that topic.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Catherine Lhamon, thank you very much for being here.

  • Catherine Lhamon:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let's get a different take now from someone who liked much of what she heard today.

    Jeanne Allen is the CEO of Center for Education Reform, a group that has long supported charter schools.

    Thanks for being here.

  • Jeanne Allen:

    Thank you, Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, you just heard from Catherine Lhamon there. She doesn't believe that this report or the recommendations will make schools safer. Do you believe it does?

  • Jeanne Allen:

    The Federal Commission School Safety did just that. It was a comprehensive, broad world view of what you have to do to provide for not just students, but teachers to be safe.

    It puts controls back in the hands of teachers and schools to make some really important disciplinary decisions when they are confronted with students objectively that cause a problem. It advocates for mental health issues in schools, not just outside.

    That's an important piece of it. It advocates for that red flag law that you mentioned. It advocates for security at a much higher level. And, fundamentally, what it does is, it says we have to think about the whole child.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about the disciplinary actions, because we know there's now a well-documented pattern, right? Those disproportionately have affected students of color.

    It is not students of color who've been carrying out these school shootings, so how does that make schools safer?

  • Jeanne Allen:

    Well, so the most important thing we have to understand about when the federal government throws down a dictate is that schools and teachers get very fearful about everything they do.

    So it's not about race and color. The issue in the Obama era discipline policy, so well-intentioned — and I so respect Catherine and Secretary King and Secretary Duncan, who put that in place. They were well-intentioned.

    But the problem is that when you fail to realize that the children coming to school who are causing discipline issues also have other background issues, right, then that's why, in some communities, it has been disproportionately on African-American males, for example, who've been suspended or there have been issues.

    Nobody wants to talk about this, Amna. The reality is, this shouldn't be something that we walk on eggs over. We should be talking about single-parent families. We should be talking about what we're doing to hold those students to high expectations.

    You mentioned in the introduction one of the things CER supports is charter schools. Well, African-American-led charter schools across the country are enforcing high levels of discipline, academic expectations and sending poor minority kids to college in droves.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you something else that came out of this report, which was a conversation about arming school personnel, if the school so chooses to do so, or for increased funding of school resource officers.

    Do you support that?

  • Jeanne Allen:

    One of the things I liked about the report is, it talked about some of the military, retired military troops, the teachers, and bringing in some of our law enforcement people who are no longer on the street, so to speak, and helping protect schools.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you believe that would make schools safer?

  • Jeanne Allen:

    I think that would absolutely make schools safer.

    I think it's talking about a holistic community approach to bringing everybody around our kids into the equation, and not leaving things on the table that perhaps would really go a long way to reporting and providing for safe, disciplined and academically rich schools.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about that holistic approach, though, because this isn't the first time we have had a report from an administration after a school shooting, right? This is now the third consecutive administration in response to a shooting that's put forward recommendations.

    What do you think it will take? For parents out there who just want to know their kids are safe, what will it take to actually bring about meaningful change that I think we can all agree even this report doesn't lead to immediately?

  • Jeanne Allen:

    And it's unfathomable to think that we actually have to think this way, right? And the parents and students who have had to endure these tragedies is awful.

    It's a report. Federal government can only do so much. We have to remember that. They cannot just dictate what should be going on in anyone's home, schools or communities. It is bully pulpit. It is to lead a discussion. It is to bring these ideas. It is make us do things and act differently and do so with a sense of urgency.

    But, fundamentally, it is parents, teachers, communities and our lawmakers who have to come together on this, without this bipartisan bickering, and who did this, and who's not treating our kids in a certain way. We have got to put that aside.

    And so what it's going to take is active parent engagement, schools that work, schools that aren't huge and amorphous, opportunities to get educated in lots of different and new ways that technology makes possible, and, fundamentally, allowing teachers to actually call out students when they're doing something wrong.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jeanne Allen, thank you very much for your time.

  • Jeanne Allen:

    Thank you, Amna.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest