A new book by Manhattan Institute Scholar Max Eden and Andrew Pollack, the father of a Parkland school shooting victim, sheds new light on the catastrophic role politically correct “positive” discipline policies played in the 2018 Parkland shooting and how those practices are hurting America’s schools.

“Why Meadow Died”, a reference to Pollack’s daughter, describes in great detail how Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz managed to avoid interactions with the criminal justice system because of soft school discipline policies.

Before Cruz committed one of the worst school shootings in United States history, police were called to his home more than 45 times. He interacted with mental health officials on a number of occasions, including a fight with his mother over whether he would be allowed to get an ID to buy a gun. 

According to security officers at Parkland, Cruz was sent to the office for misbehavior on numerous occasions, yet few actions were taken to document this behavior. A school record could have been key to getting Cruz the help that might have prevented this tragedy. Instead, nothing happened.

Eden and Pollack dive into the policies and theories behind a growing practice among educators in the United States that traditional discipline practices harm students. Rather than suspending or expelling students for misbehavior, positive behavioral support interventions that focus on restorative practices are given preference. This politically-correct policy has been enforced by the federal Department of Education under the Obama Administration through administrative guidance that threatened school districts with lawsuits if suspension rates differ by race, and rules that threaten federal IDEA funding for schools that suspend students with disabilities at a higher rate. 

The predictable result was that suspension and expulsion rates have fallen throughout the country, but not necessarily because of improved behavior.  Both publically and privately, teachers complain about feeling unsupported in the classroom. Students routinely are removed for misbehavior, only to be sent back to the classroom with little or no punishment. In polling, teachers report that discipline reform has made schools less safe. This is the sort of environment where a student like Cruz can slip through the cracks. 

This book provide a powerful lesson for those that claim gun control or confiscation is the only solution for America’s mass shooting problem.  Instead, what may be needed is a return to common-sense discipline practices that are less concerned about lowering suspension rates than with ensuring that a record is created so that warning signs are obvious. One that is more concerned about the safety of the student body as a whole than whether or not a particular student that habitually does bad things can somehow be “restored” through politically correct interventions. 

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) was among those that urged the Trump administration to rescind a “Dear Colleague” letter that was the impetus for similar policies eschewing traditional discipline practices in favor of restorative justice. In December of 2018, the current administration finally came through.

While we applaud the administration for this decision, problems remain that could lead to similar tragedies in the future. Across the country—and including districts in Wisconsin—many schools continue to implement PBIS of their own volition. And another Obama-era regulation that encourages districts to limit disciplining students diagnosed with disabilities is still being enforced by the Trump administration while they litigate it in court. 

We hope the work of Eden and Pollack here will encourage policymakers to reconsider policies that tend to sound good on paper, but are having deadly consequences for our children. 

Will Flanders is the Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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