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VICTOR JOECKS: CCSD’s approach to discipline is dangerous

Updated September 30, 2019 - 4:52 pm

School officials more focused on “restorative justice” than school safety enabled the Stoneman Douglas High School shooter. That’s the finding of a new book by Andrew Pollack, the father of Meadow Pollack, one of the students murdered during the massacre. Pollack’s message should worry local parents, because the Clark County School District is pursuing some of the same goals.

Broward County Public Schools, which includes Stoneman Douglas, was one of the first districts to embrace restorative justice during the Obama administration. It replaces punitive measures, such as suspensions, with tactics such as healing circles. Not a joke.

The Obama administration praised “policies in place in Broward as models of excellence,” wrote Pollack and co-author Max Eden, senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, in “Why Meadow Died.”

“Why? Arrests were down, suspensions were down and school officials reported that their schools were becoming safer,” the book notes. “What was actually happening was that school officials and local police were barred from disciplining individuals who clearly needed punishment.”

Years before the shooting, school officials knew the eventual killer was a violent, troubled youth. He had a history of sexual harassment and making death threats. He shouldn’t have been in the school. But Broward allowed students to have four misdemeanors per school year before referring them to law enforcement. It’s amazing how the same folks who demand universal background checks fight to stop people who threaten violence from having a criminal record.

The shooter should have been in juvenile detention receiving mental health care. Instead, thanks to restorative justice, he went to a JROTC class where he learned to shoot a rifle.

Pollack says his mission in writing the book is to warn others. Parents here should be worried that the discipline goals set by Superintendent Jesus Jara reflect the priorities of Broward County.

Jara began his tenure last year by creating measurable goals for the district to achieve by 2024. Intentionally or not, there’s a cynical brilliance to a superintendent with a three-year contract setting five-year goals.

But clear goals won’t be effective if you’re measuring the wrong things. When it comes to student discipline, Jara should have focused efforts on improving student behavior. Instead, he has the district looking at how teachers and administrators respond to troublemakers. His goals include reducing suspensions, expulsions and the racial disproportionality in the punishment rate. Those are the goals of restorative justice programs.

It would be great if suspensions went down — as a result of fewer kids misbehaving. As seen at Stoneman Douglas, it’s dangerous if suspensions go down simply because district bigwigs deny that tool to school administrators.

Thankfully, the CCSD hasn’t experienced a mass shooting. But there is evidence that the district’s restorative justice approach has increased violence on campus. Starting before Jara’s tenure, district leaders have worked for years to reduce suspensions and expulsions. As punitive measures decreased, violence went up. From 2013 to 2017, expulsion recommendations fell by almost 69 percent. The rate of violence experienced by students grew by 50 percent.

Advocates justify this approach because African-American and Hispanic students are more likely to be suspended and expelled than white and Asian students. The mere existence of the disparity isn’t evidence of racism, however, because there are factors aside from race affecting student behavior. It’s likely much of the disparity would disappear if you adjusted for family income and single parenthood.

Jara and the district should heed Pollack’s warning. Pursing the same policies and goals that enabled the Stoneman Douglas shooter doesn’t keep students safe.

A previous version of this column incorrectly identified Andrew Pollack’s daughter.

Contact Victor Joecks at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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