Monday Reading List: Making Specious Claims About Child Safety is a Dangerous Game

Robert Pondiscio and Max Eden wrote an opinion piece in the New York Daily News last weekblaming a school discipline policy for the death of a student in New York City:

Before Mayor de Blasio’s citywide push to reduce suspensions began in 2015, it was a safe school. In 2013-14, according to the city’s official school survey, 86% of teachers said order was maintained, and 80% of students felt safe in the hallways. Last year, a mere 19% of teachers thought the school was in order, and only 55% of kids felt safe. How did that happen — and so suddenly? There may have been multiple causes, but one factor seems clear. Under policy orders to limit disciplinary interventions and implement a “restorative” approach, the school got so bad that some parents reportedly began patrolling the hallways themselves.

In an article filled with suspect reasoning and racialized political dog-whistling, this is perhaps the most important passage to understand.

But before I get back to the project of dismantling their arguments, I want to concede one point: there's no magical school discipline policy. As much as I loathe zero-tolerance approaches to punishing students, most educators struggle to implement "restorative justice," the most popular alternative. The failure to implement "restorative justice" comes from issues of both training and background. Moreover, there is no consistent definition of restorative justice, so the term can be used to signify flagrantly different approaches from one classroom to the next.

Due in part to the looseness of said definitions, it is impossible to draw a causal link between the tragic events in this particular school and one specific approach to school discipline. At best, Pondiscio and Eden are making an argument about correlation with absolutely no evidence of causation. To confuse causation and correlation is a logical error in policymaking, and one that can lead to overwrought conclusions with devastating consequences for children.

Beyond the conflation of causation and correlation, even their correlative argument is flimsy. The stabbing was tragic, yes. And anecdotal. The only other data points they share are in the paragraph above, which describe perceptions, not actual statistics about school safety.

Perhaps I'm being too glib about perceptions, though. Erika Sanzi ponders how parents might react to this article over at Good School Hunting:

... no matter how much certain parts of the piece may get under the collective skin of the reform community, I sincerely hope we find it in ourselves to slow down and ask ourselves: what if my child attended the school where this happened? What if that had been my student? ... I am a supporter of restorative justice but, as with any practice whose goal is to change behavior, it only works when done well. It takes a highly skilled team and an all-in approach. Far too often, restorative justice is an edict from the top and those being tasked with implementation haven’t even bought in yet let alone received comprehensive training.

Sanzi is right to point out that parents whose children attend this school deserve to be heard, and that no amount of rationalizing about policy will change their sense that the school has become unsafe.

That said, Sanzi concedes the fundamental and tendentious point that Pondiscio and Eden make, which is to suggest that we can attribute this tragic incidence to the school's disciplinary policy, which we cannot do with the evidence provided. Absent additional evidence and research, Pondiscio and Eden are engaging in fear-mongering.

Why is this so important? Here's Beth Hawkins, a reporter in Minnesota, with some critical backstory to why Pondiscio and Eden are making this argument public:

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is considering rolling back a sweeping, landmark set of civil rights rules laid down by the Obama administration that pushed for an end to disparities in school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline ... on Friday her staff took a meeting brokered in part by Mike Petrilli, the conservative president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute ... According to Petrilli’s description to a number of reporters, the meeting was mostly a “listening session,” with teachers and parents telling tales about how heavy-handed discipline edicts had forced two teachers to endure student brutality. [NOTE: this language reflects an updated version of Hawkins's article.]

First of all, for folks who don't spend everyday enmeshed within the education policy beltway, Pondiscio, the co-author of the Daily News piece, is the vice-president of Petrilli's Institute.

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Back to Hawkins. In her article, Hawkins examines these claims about student brutality against administrators. These claims were exaggerated, in an effort to prevent changes to, you guessed it, school discipline policies.

There are some other juicy bits in Hawkins's piece, including details of a union-backed campaign to oust a superintendent who wanted to suspend fewer non-White children ...


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No, wait!


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The over-suspension of Black and Brown children is ALL of our business.


Which brings me back to the original Pondiscio & Eden piece in the Daily News. While confusing causation and correlation is a critical offense in the wide world of wonkery, that conflation is far from a great sin among civilians.

In the case of this particular argument, however, something more dangerous is at play. By speciously using a single act of violence to advocate for greater policing of adolescents' bodies, Pondiscio and Eden are vivifying the exact sort of scare tactics that cause the over-punishment of both children and adults of color, by our public systems.

Actual academic studies illustrate no connections between "zero-tolerance" school discipline policies and classroom safety. Similarly, researchers have not been able to identify linkages between "broken windows" policing and public safety. In both the schools and the policing contexts, however, the zero-tolerance approach has led to the racialized over-suspension, or over-incarceration, of Black and Brown people. The only time Pondiscio and Eden deign to acknowledge this problem, they recast the blame on poor families, saying, "Activists are alarmed about the racial disparity in suspensions and refuse to admit the possibility that differences in poverty and family structure play a role."

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Blaming "family structure" for disparities in educational attainment, and other social outcomes, is an old trope in conservative thinking. In the meantime, actual racist policies continue to exist, which are a far more compelling - and empirically sound - explanations for said disparities. Pondiscio and Eden must be aware that their thinking and conclusions are reified only by suspect thinking about race, but they continue to trot out these tired ideas, while stirring up fear among parents who are justifiably concerned about their children's safety in schools.

While Pondiscio and Eden use the terms "social justice" and "school-to-prison-pipeline" as punchlines, those ideas are very real for families whose children are punished by racist systems. There is nothing perfect about "restorative justice" in practice, but the zero-tolerance policies of the last generation led to the over-suspension of Black children, and the over-incarceration of Black adults.

The implementation of those policies relied on a culture of fear, fomented by articles like the one Pondiscio and Eden wrote in the Daily News. We shouldn't take the bait.