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As students settle in for the school year, parents should ask: Is my child really safe at school?

From our perch as education policy analysts, we can’t answer that question for you. But we feel compelled to share an uncomfortable truth: If your school has started looking much safer on paper, it may well be getting more dangerous in reality.

Parents in Parkland, Florida, thought they were sending their kids to the safest school in Broward County. As the local newspaper pointed out months after the tragic school shooting that took 17 lives, the school district “reported to the state that no one was bullied or harassed, no one trespassed on campus, no one was violently attacked, no one broke into campus after hours and nothing expensive was stolen during the 2016-17 school year.”

The school district had launched a slate of leniency policies that decreased arrests by about 70% and suspensions and expulsions by nearly 50%. Broward became nationally famous for its restorative justice reforms, which the Obama Department of Education pressured and coerced hundreds of school districts, serving millions of students, to adopt.

There was only one problem: The numbers weren’t true. Parkland parents didn’t know that arrests had decreased because students were being given three free misdemeanors every year and principals were trained to refuse to cooperate with law enforcement. The district was further underreporting these already artificially depressed crime statistics to the state. The school district’s disciplinary practices became so lenient that only 39% of teachers now believe that if they were assaulted, the student would be suspended. (Only 9% expect expulsion, a more severe punishment.)

Parents didn’t know there was a student sitting next to their children in class, someone who was so dangerous that school employees had banned him from bringing a backpack to school. In fact, they frisked him every day for fear that he’d bring in a deadly weapon and use it. It was this student who — due in part to his clean record on paper — eventually did what they feared and took 17 lives in the deadliest high school shooting in American history.

The legacy of the Parkland school shooting is a bitter partisan debate over gun control, led by a handful of student activists. But several of the families of the victims became more intent on answering the question: What went wrong in the schools that enabled this to happen?

One of us traveled from Washington, D.C., to Parkland to look into that question, and happened to meet Andrew Pollack — who lost his daughter Meadow that tragic Valentine’s Day. The investigation has become a book, out this week: “Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies that Created the Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students.

The key takeaway for parents nationwide: The Parkland school shooting was the most avoidable mass murder in American history, and the policies that made it inevitable may have spread to your child’s school.                                     

The tried-and-tested approach to school discipline and safety has been turned on its head by the new fad of restorative practices. School leaders across the country are systematically refusing to enforce rules and are sweeping disturbing behavior under the rug, and then patting themselves on the back for being on the cutting edge of reform in the name of social justice.

According to a national poll by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, about 70% of teachers believe that their school’s discipline numbers have improved because of a higher tolerance for misbehavior. Almost half believe they’ve improved because of underreporting.

Michigan schools have long been known for their strict discipline, but politicians and policymakers have chipped away at it in recent years. A 2016 bill signed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder requires schools to default to restorative practices, and the Michigan Department of Education has targeted and pressured a dozen districts to change their approach. From 2016 to 2018, the statewide rate of student expulsions fell significantly, but it’s not clear how much can be attributed to improved behavior, as opposed to more lenient policies.

Still, chances are none of this will lead to a school shooting. But school safety is about much more than avoiding gun deaths. It’s about minimizing disruption, disorder, bullying and violence. The typical Michigan school has a long way to go before it becomes as dangerous as those in Broward County, Florida. But parents must be on guard against a descent into schoolhouse chaos, where students can assault teachers and be placed back in class the next day.

Parents are by far the best advocates for school safety. When leniency policies take hold, teachers too often feel intimidated against speaking out, for fear of retaliation from principals or school district bureaucrats. Parents must step up, talk to teachers (off the record) and find out if the dangerous dynamics that these policies can engender are at work in their child’s school. If so, they must go to their school board and demand that teachers be supported and students be protected by rolling back restorative practices.

Andrew Pollack’s message to parents: “I had no idea what was actually happening in my daughter’s school. I can’t let any other parent in America honestly make that excuse.”

For their part, state lawmakers can protect teacher whistleblowers and make schools administer annual anonymous, open-ended surveys to let teachers speak directly to parents about safety problems — without fear of retaliation.

When it comes to schools, nothing matters more than what happens on the local level. Education bureaucrats are advancing policies that make students less safe, and congratulating themselves for it. The best way to guarantee students stay safe in school is for parents to be informed and involved.

The first step is to look behind the numbers and find out what’s truly happening in your child’s classroom.

Max Eden is co-author of "Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies that Created the Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students." Ben DeGrow is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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