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.
Lacking any evidence, the think tanks got to work. 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:
— Frederick M. Hess (@rickhess99) March 2, 2018
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.