Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Dear Speaker Ryan and Leader Pelosi,
The 51 undersigned organizations write to express our concerns about H.R. 4909, the Students, Teachers, and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Act of 2018, introduced on January 30, 2018.
H.R. 4909 seeks to reauthorize the 2001 Secure Our Schools program through the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. The bill would authorize $50 million annually for state and local schools to fund training to prevent student violence; to develop and operate an anonymous reporting system for threats of school violence; to develop and operate school threat assessment and intervention teams; to coordinate with local law enforcement; and to invest in any additional measures to improve school security. Our organizations believe that this effort is misguided, duplicative, and may be harmful to all students.
First, while an anonymous reporting system may increase the likelihood that threats of school violence are reported and addressed, we are concerned by the lack of due process protections in place for students against whom a report is made. H.R. 4909 does not require grant recipients to institute meaningful process to protect students if a false report is made, nor does it provide guidance on how to best implement such reporting systems to protect against potential abuse. In order to protect students, grant recipients should be required to implement real redress opportunities for students who are erroneously flagged for threats of violence.
Additionally, we have concerns related to the development and operation of school threat assessment and intervention teams in conjunction with law enforcement agencies. One way threat assessment systems are implemented is through requiring school personnel to use checklists to determine whether a student is a potential threat.2 Not only does this change the way teachers may view students, but, particularly with law enforcement involved, it may increase the school-to-prison pipeline, which we know disproportionately impacts students of color and students with disabilities.3 This also impacts students of marginalized communities such as LGBTQ, low socio-economic status, and those who encounter religious discrimination.
Starting in the early 2000s and stemming from high-profile school shootings like Columbine, schools began to incorporate zero-tolerance policies and increase police presence in schools. While initially intended to address gun violence in school, these zero-tolerance policies quickly lead to students being suspended or expelled for less serious offenses. Not only have schools expanded their zero-tolerance policies, but some state laws now require schools to report certain infractions to law enforcement agencies. While these laws are primarily intended to target criminal conduct, some jurisdictions have actually criminalized nonviolent and nonthreatening behavior in schools, including disrupting class and truancy. We are concerned that implementing school threat assessments may have a similar effect.
In order to ensure anonymous reporting systems and threat assessment systems do not disproportionately impact certain students, Congress should require grant recipients under the STOP School Violence Act to collect data in order to determine the number of youth of color, youth with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth who are being targeted through these systems and how many youth are being funneled to the justice system after anonymous reports are made. Further, grant recipients should be required to address any disproportionate contact in these systems as a contingency to receiving funding.
We also note that the bill opens the grant availability to all schools, rather than just public schools. Including private schools and charter schools in this legislation is especially dangerous. Due process requirements mandated by the U.S. Constitution to protect students who are being suspended or expelled do not apply to private schools. While charter schools, as public schools, are also required to meet such constitutional requirements in theory, experience suggests they are less likely to do so in practice. The outcome can be damaging for students. Data in Chicago, for example, has shown that for every 10,000 students, 61 students are expelled from charter schools as compared to 5 from schools run by the local school district. Such expulsions disproportionately are targeted at youth of color and are all too often for minor behavioral infractions. While we understand the need to keep our students safe, we urge you to avoid establishing programs that could increase the unnecessary and unjust expulsion of students of color and other marginalized communities and deny them due process rights to challenge the assertions that are being made against them.
It is also concerning that, while H.R. 4909 does amend the grant program to remove an explicit reference to metal detectors, it does state that grant funds may be used for “[a]ny other measure that…may provide a significant improvement in security,” which leaves the door open for schools to use grant money to purchase metal detectors and similar equipment. Though investing in such measures might seem like an obvious step in protecting students and teachers, a report from the National Association of School Psychologists found that “[t]here is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in prevention school violence.” The report also noted that the presence of security guards and surveillance equipment can have a negative impact on students’ perception of safety, and, in some cases, can increase the level of fear in students.
Finally, we note that H.R. 4909 states that it will give preference to applicants who use evidenced-based strategies such as those identified by the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative (CSSI), a research-focused initiative created in response to school violence. In the past, funding has been used to assess collaborative, comprehensive approaches to improving school safety; examining the causes and consequences of school violence; and the negative impacts of zero tolerance policies. Rather than reauthorizing the Secure Our Schools program, Congress could instead expand CSSI to include training and funds to implement the best practices identified by the CSSI research programs.
For the reasons outlined above, we urge you to vote no on H.R. 4909 unless these concerns are addressed. We all want to ensure that students remain safe in school, so they can complete their education, be ready for work and adulthood, and become contributing members of society. We believe this can be done in a way that does not compromise students’ due process rights and does not contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Alliance for Educational Justice
American Civil Liberties Union*
American Friends Service Committee
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Campaign for Youth Justice
Center for Children's Law and Policy
Child Welfare League of America
Center for Law and Social Policy*
Children's Defense Fund
Children's Defense Fund - New York
Children's Law Center, Inc.
Children's Rights Clinic, Southwestern Law School
Citizens for Juvenile Justice
Coalition for Juvenile Justice
Defending Rights & Dissent
Independence: A Family of Services
Justice Policy Institute
Juvenile Justice Coalition (Ohio)
Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (National)
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Le'Ann Duran Consulting
Louisiana Center for Children's Rights
MLK Coalition of Greater Los Angeles
Muslim Justice League
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities
National Association of Social Workers
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Congress of American Indians
The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls
National Council of Churches
National Council of Jewish Women
National Disability Rights Network
National Juvenile Justice Network
National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund
National Urban League
National Youth Employment Coalition
Pacific Juvenile Defender Center
Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law
School Social Work Association of America
SPAN Parent Advocacy Network
Strategies for Youth, Inc.
The Sentencing Project
United Methodist Women
University of Illinois-Chicago
Veterans For Peace Los Angeles
W. Haywood Burns Institute
*Added on March 13, 2018
Cc: Members of the U.S. House of Representatives