This commentary was originally featured in the Washington Examiner on March 25, 2018.
Reports have surfaced that, despite a history of violent outbursts and assaults, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter was never referred to law enforcement. Instead, he was disciplined through school channels and eventually expelled.
Schools should have the latitude to determine whether misbehavior warrants police involvement, but policy must always be motivated by public safety. This is especially true when it comes to school safety. Tragically, it appears that was not the case at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Broward County reformed its student discipline policies a few years ago to shrink the number of infractions punished under zero-tolerance rules. Such reforms typically reduce in-school arrests, suspensions, and expulsions. While the shooter was not part of the intervention-based programborne of these reforms, his serious, felonious conduct was shielded from the criminal justice system. It has been reported that the Broward Sheriff’s Office collaborated with the school district in a concerted effort to avoid law enforcement involvement in order to manufacture statistics for state and federal grants. Note also the accolades that followed the disciplinary shift.
With limited information, some we must ask what role the student discipline structure played in the horrific event that resulted in 17 dead. And we should question the validity of reforms in recent past.
Efforts focused primarily on arbitrary statistical reduction instead of improvements to public safety are bound to undermine otherwise prudent policies. A core responsibility of government is to keep communities safe, and this duty should not be placed behind political gain.
Zero-tolerance policies are designed to deter misbehavior by employing swift, uniform responses to broad categories of offenses, irrespective of details. While well intended, there exists ample evidence these policies fail to produce safer learning environments for kids and cost taxpayers millions in alternative programs. Moreover, the problem with these blanket policies is that they lack nuance. If you ask judges or prosecutors to relinquish discretion in favor of rigid punishment schemes, they balk — and for good reason. Not every case is the same, and there is considerable value in having the ability to assess situations on an individual basis.
Likewise, zero-tolerance policies in school systems disallow for exceptions or proportionality, leading to outcomes that defy common sense. Reasonable minds can agree that punishing a 12-year-old girl for saving a classmate’s life by letting her borrow an inhaler is simply unjust, and suspending an exemplary student for seven weeks due to a theater prop sword found in the back of a car is nonsensical. This is why discretionary decision-making, coupled with a variety of disciplinary tools, is more effective than broad, sweeping punishment.
Texas has led the way in implementing rational, incremental juvenile justice reforms. In 2013, the legislature scaled back in-school arrests of children for certain Class C misdemeanors — such as disruption in class or offensive noises — in favor of a graduated sanctions-based model, and in 2015 they did the same for truancy. But at no point did they entertain soft-pedaling, much less condoning, criminal conduct in the pursuit of arbitrary metrics. Class B misdemeanors, which includes harassment and fighting, were unaffected by the school disciplines reforms, and law enforcement can still arrest if need be.
While many facts remain undetermined, some parts of the Parkland, Fla., story are certain. For reasons unknown, four local officers did not enter the school once they arrived, the FBI and local authorities failed to respond to tips regarding the shooter’s violent and disturbing behavior leading up to the horrific event, and the school declined to refer the shooter to law enforcement, despite a history of violence. The reality here is that government officials, both on the local and federal level, failed to respond to alarming situations. This does not mean all reform efforts designed to chip away at zero-tolerance policies are imprudent. It means the primary goal of school discipline reforms should be safety. It means policies should be common sense and evidence-based, and it means citizens should hold leaders accountable.