The Right Is Distracting Us From Needed Gun Safety Laws by Creating a Myth About School Discipline

Mar 6, 2018 12:00:00 AM


This is how myths are made. It typically starts with a view grounded in ideology. Then “research” is generated to support the view. Lastly, pundits and policy analysts legitimize the view in the public arena. Eventually it becomes conventional wisdom. Case in point: Obama administration discipline guidance and gun violence in schools. In 2011-12, the Obama administration surveyed schools across the country and learned that Black students were three times more likely to be suspended than White students. Educators were well aware of these disparities and some had already begun implementing “restorative justice programs” to reduce “exclusionary” discipline practices. In 2014, the Obama administration issued guidance to school districts across the country encouraging the use of restorative justice practices over more punitive measures that often lead to arrests—the “school to prison pipeline.” Emboldened by the Trump election, conservatives set their sights on repealing the 2014 guidance, which they see as overreach on the part of the federal government. Early in the Trump administration, articles started appearing attacking the guidance, claiming it would reduce classroom order and lead to a wave of unjustified federal civil rights investigations. [pullquote position="right"]Lacking any evidence, the think tanks got to work.[/pullquote] Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute analyzed school district surveys in New York City taken during the Bloomberg administration, which embraced tougher discipline policies, to surveys taken during the de Blasio administration, which embraced restorative justice practices. In an op-ed in USA Today, Eden breathlessly announced his “alarming” findings. “Under Bloomberg, physical fighting became less frequent at 30 percent of schools and more frequent at 28 percent; under de Blasio, it became less frequent at 14 percent of schools and more frequent at 50 percent. Under Bloomberg, peer respect improved at 36 percent of schools and deteriorated at 30 percent; under de Blasio, it improved at 19 percent of schools and deteriorated at 58 percent.” Note that this data is based on student “perception” surveys rather than reported incidents. We have no idea if fighting is more frequent in the de Blasio administration. We only know that some students in some schools think it is more frequent and some students in some schools don’t. It’s also unclear what data Eden left out that didn’t support his narrative, but he apparently overlooked the latest survey on the New York City public schools website, which shows that parents, teachers and students overwhelmingly feel safe. According to the survey:
  • 81 percent of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that at their school, order and discipline are maintained.
  • 91 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed that they feel safe in their classes at their school. An equally high percentage feel safe in the hallways.
  • 96 percent of New York City parents think their child is safe at school.
The policy community happily links to this research, without questioning its methodologies. Eden and the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio relied on the same data to link a fatal school stabbing in the Bronx to de Blasio’s discipline policies. Eden drew an equally thin thread between discipline issues in Philadelphia and the Obama guidance. In similar ways, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli has tried to build a case that Black students behave worse than White students so higher discipline rates are justified and enforcement based on disparate impact is not. Linking census data with discipline rates, Petrilli concluded, “It appears likely that poor students misbehave at higher rates than non-poor students, and in some districts poor students are much more likely to be Black.” Petrilli also arranged a listening session with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos where she heard horror stories of out-of-control schools, in an effort to prompt a review of the guidance. On Valentine’s Day 2018, their big moment arrived. Nikolas Cruz, a Parkland, Florida, student who was kicked out of school for behavioral issues but was never arrested, murdered 17 people. The gun he used was illegal under the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, and has since become the weapon of choice for mass murderers. Rather than focusing on Cruz’s unhindered ability to buy such a dangerous weapon despite numerous warnings to local police and the FBI, right-wing pundits and policy analysts have been blaming the Broward County school system for adopting restorative justice practices encouraged by the Obama administration, suggesting they played a role in police inaction. The conservative Hoover Institution’s Paul Sperry and David French, who writes for the conservative National Review, have both picked up on the theme. Rick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute iced the cake with this tweet:   Voila! An unproven, ideologically-driven theory that Obama administration guidance contributed to chaos in classrooms and the deaths of students and adults in the Florida shooting is the new consensus among conservative think tanks and right-wing media. The myth is now real and it’s only a matter of time before it’s spilling from the mouths of NRA-funded lawmakers who desperately need an alternate narrative to the one that students, parents, teachers, civil rights organizations, law-abiding gun owners, most Americans, and even an imprisoned former school shooter know to be true: America’s pathetic gun laws are the problem.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

The Feed


  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...

  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...