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Schools Are Out For The Summer, But The Debate On How To Make Them Safer Continues


For more on how this debate is playing out in other schools and communities, we're joined by Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team. And, Anya, to start, beyond the tragedy in Parkland, how has what's going on in Broward County actually become a national issue?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: So as Jessica noted, Promise was one of many programs that was cited when the Obama administration in 2014 issued guidance on school discipline, saying that school discipline really is a civil rights issue and that districts need to take steps to end the school-to-prison pipeline. And more lately we've seen Education Secretary Betsy DeVos backing off of that guidance, and that really is setting up this tension between what I call the softs and the hards on school discipline.

CORNISH: Who are the hards? Who are the softs?

KAMENETZ: So the hards - and this includes some Parkland parents, as you heard - they're calling for more police officers in schools, more guns, perhaps even in the hands of teachers, and physical aspects of security - metal detectors, buzzers, lockdown, bulletproof glass. And for students, of course at any sign of disrespect or disruption, the hards would say, you should suspend; you should expel; you should arrest if necessary. And this is an approach you can really date back to 1994 with the federal Gun-Free Schools Act. And that was mandating that cops be called on any student who brought a firearm to school.

CORNISH: And there was a lot of backlash to that, right?

KAMENETZ: That's right. So the softs say that zero tolerance has been tried and taken to excess. In Broward County, in Florida, for example, you had at least one student arrested for throwing a spitball. And on top of that, the softs say that hardcore zero tolerance doesn't even work on a practical level. Developmental psychologist and sociologists say if you really want to reduce violence, you have to take a public-health approach. You have to do threat assessments when something is reported and make sure that there are supports in place like counseling.

And also in the camp of what you might call the softs are the civil rights advocates. You know, actually, the differences in how black and brown children are disciplined in school have not gotten better. In the 2015-2016 school year, black students represented 15 percent of the total student population and 31 percent of students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested.

CORNISH: And in the meantime, the education secretary, Betsy DeVos - help us understand the thinking there.

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, what we're seeing from Betsy DeVos and her Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education is that they are slowing down on a lot of the investigations that were pursued by the Obama administration. So that means that when there are concerns about race and discipline in schools, it's less likely that her department's going to be serving as a mediator of those disputes. And we're also seeing that, you know, hardening schools is an avowed part of the mission of the School Safety Commission that was set up after Parkland by Trump and is headed by DeVos.

CORNISH: So where does that leave the debate at this point?

KAMENETZ: You know, Audie, any time that you have bereaved parents, there is going to be an impetus to change something. And the question is, what do we change, right? So the softs say, yes, we could harden our schools into fallout shelters, but this is where students, young people are spending most of their waking hours. They need to be comfortable, welcoming places. Fear and anxiety and stress - that all contributes to an unsafe atmosphere.

And then the hards say it's restorative justice that's been taken too far and, you know, we can't just be, you know, having kids acting out with absolutely no consequences. So I think what both sides agree on is that it might be easy to lay down hard-and-fast rules, but the really hard way is to create relationships and make students feel safe and give them - of course pay for the supports to do that. And many are questioning, why is it that we have money for police officers and for guns in schools but we don't have money for counselors and other kinds of supports?

CORNISH: Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team, thanks for helping us understand the debate.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.