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Scrap the Education Department's policies on suspending students

An electronic sign displays relevant events for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students in Parkland, Fla., while a Broward County Sheriff Department car stands by.
On Feb. 14, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was the site of a mass school shooting.

If a school can't expel or refer to law enforcement a student who endangers others, how can it keep its students safe?

Thanks to a lousy “Dear Colleague” letter sent in January 2014 by the Obama administration’s Departments of Education and Justice, schools have been fearful of suspending or expelling too many students, or reporting them to law enforcement, lest their federal funding be cut.

Yes, the letter had noble intentions of easing the school-to-prison pipeline and protecting students of color from disciplinary discrimination. But good intentions don't always yield good results.

Thankfully, our schools are actually safer now than ever before. As we wrote on March 4, “The murder of school children is a terrible calamity, but schools overall are incredibly safe, both in terms of mass shootings and of everyday crime.” But that doesn’t mean the rare few students who deserve harsh punishments like suspensions or expulsion should be excused.

Research shows that arbitrarily cutting down on suspensions and expulsions harms students academically. In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District stopped suspending middle school students for “willful defiance.” The result was a substantial decrease in academic growth in the schools that had been issuing those suspensions, equivalent to months of lost learning.

There’s a chance the reforms spurred by the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter played a small role in the Parkland, Fla., tragedy. As the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden wrote:

In 2013, the school board and the sheriff’s office agreed on a new policy to discontinue police referrals for a dozen infractions ranging from drug use to assault. The number of school-based arrests plummeted by 63 percent from 2012 to 2016. The Obama administration lauded Broward’s reforms, and in 2015 invited the district’s superintendent to the White House for an event, “Rethink Discipline,” that would highlight the success of Broward and other localities’ success in “transforming policies and school climate.”

The Parkland shooter was suspended and eventually expelled for bringing weapons to school. But the school referred him to social workers instead of law enforcement. Although law enforcement had plenty of failures that contributed to the tragedy, harder disciplinary action against the shooter may have either set him straight or at least taken him off his deadly path.

A growing number of lawmakers and policy experts are calling on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to revise or withdraw the January 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Even without asserting a connection between the Obama-era rule and the Parkland shooting, the Education Department should withdraw Obama's letter. Congress can do even better: Pass a law restricting the federal Department of Education’s ability to regulate or influence the disciplinary policies of local schools.

Congress had a great start with the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law by Obama in December 2015. That law restricted, in important ways, the Education Department’s ability to influence academic standards or achievement plans in states and localities.

Perhaps more suspensions are better in schools with more students that act out. But that is not true for all schools, and it is not the federal government’s role to determine what each school should do. Congress and DeVos would be wise to respect that on this issue and most others.