Education

California’s Ban on School Suspensions Invites Another Parkland

Governor Gavin Newsom speaks at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco, June 1, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
One year after the mass shooting in Florida, Gavin Newsom institutes the policies that made it inevitable.

My daughter Meadow was murdered in the Parkland school shooting in Florida last year. It was the most avoidable mass murder in American history. And last week, Governor Gavin Newsom just forced into every school in California the policies that made it inevitable.

The Parkland shooter was a known-wolf. Before the massacre was over, students knew who did it. He was considered so dangerous when he attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that school administrators banned him from bringing a backpack and frisked him every day for fear that he’d bring a deadly weapon.

Even though security staff brought him to the principal’s office all the time, his disciplinary record looked pretty clean on paper. If he had been arrested at school for his crimes, maybe the FBI could have followed through on tips that he would shoot up the school. And if he’d been disciplined for his sub-criminal misbehavior, maybe school administrators could have made a strong case for sending him back to a specialized school for disturbed students, where he so badly needed to be.

But the Broward County school district had embarked on a quest to fight the “school-to-prison pipeline” by lowering suspensions, expulsions, and arrests. And school principals responded by systematically sweeping disturbing behavior under the rug. If one individual in the Broward school district made one responsible decision about the killer, the tragedy could have been averted. But you can’t even call what happened a “failure,” because each obviously irresponsible decision makes perfect sense given the policies.

The state of California has just lurched far harder on leniency than Broward, by banning suspensions and expulsions for nonviolent offenses.

Don’t you dare think that in practice this leniency won’t extend to violence, though. In Broward, 52 percent of teachers fear for their safety. Twenty-four percent have been threatened. Thirteen percent have been assaulted. And only 39 percent think that a student would be suspended if he assaulted them.

Beyond leading to an increase in school violence and risk of deadly catastrophe, these leniency policies are profoundly bad for learning and for character. We know what happens when schools ban suspension.

In Philadelphia, math proficiency declined by three percentage points, and reading proficiency by seven. Truancy skyrocketed from about 25 percent to over 40 percent, perhaps because even as suspensions for nonviolent offenses fell, suspensions for serious offenses rose.

Education researcher Dominic Zarecki studied the effects of suspension bans in several California districts: Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, and Pasadena. The harm to math achievement was large enough to take a student from the 50th percentile to the 39th percentile after three years.

Anti-discipline advocates claim that suspensions can be replaced by “restorative justice” and “healing circles.” In reality, that does further damage. A gold-standard study from the RAND corporation found that in Pittsburgh, “restorative justice” harmed academic achievement among black students.

Anti-discipline advocates claim that they are fighting the “school-to-prison pipeline.” In reality, their policies increase the flow. The idea that not holding kids accountable for their actions will make them more law-abiding as adults is idiotic. If we tell juveniles there are no consequences for misbehavior, we set them up for failure in the workplace. And we put them at risk for a hard reckoning when they find that behavior that didn’t even get them suspended in school gets them a felony charge when they hit age 18.

For evidence, look no further than Los Angeles. As the school board banned suspensions, referrals to law enforcement increased 145 percent. And last year, threats of violence in Los Angeles schools increased by 70 percent.

I sent my daughter to public school thinking she was safe. I had no idea there was a kid there so dangerous that they frisked him every day. I had no idea that the school was systematically covering up threats and violence. I didn’t know.

I can’t let any other parent make that excuse. That’s why I wrote a book to tell the true story of Parkland. I don’t expect that this article or that book, or that anything, really, will convince the Democratic politicians who run California to think twice about this terrible mistake. My whole life’s mission now is to inform parents.

Chances are, your kid won’t get murdered at school. But you have to know about the type of environment you’re putting your child in. Public school in California is now a place where disruption, threats, and even violence can’t even be punished.

My advice to California parents: Stretch your wallet to send them to private school. Or keep them in public school and roll the dice.

Andrew Pollack lost his daughter Meadow in the Parkland school shooting. He is the co-author, with Max Eden, of Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies that Created the Parkland Killer and Endanger America’s Students.

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