Opinion

Students Need An Escape From Public School Violence

America’s public schools are starting to resemble war zones.

Recently, a fistfight between two female students at a Mobile, Alabama high school erupted into a campus-wide fracas that ended in gunfire.  A massive lunchroom brawl at a North Carolina school resulted in multiple arrests.  And in San Diego, several teenage boys were rushed to the emergency room with stab wounds after a fight broke out in a crowd of over 60 students.

The Obama administration, state and local school officials, and administrators are largely to blame. Their fealty to a politically correct agenda prevents them from restoring order in the classroom. Schoolchoice measures like education savings accounts, tax credits and voucher programs can offer students an escape from such dangerous environments — and give those students the opportunity to learn in peace.

School violence has reached epidemic proportions. Two in three public schools report at least one violent incident per year — and one in ten schools report at least one serious violent offense, such as rape, robbery, or assault with a weapon.  More than 750,000 crimes are committed on school grounds annually.

In addition to inflicting immediate physical damage, this violence leaves long-term psychological scars. Sustained exposure to violence in one’s formative years is associated with higher rates of depression and criminal behavior in adulthood.

Despite these ills, many school administrators refuse to crack down on unruly and violent students. Activists claim that traditional punitive measures, like suspension, discriminate against minority students. Tough punishments, they say, cause kids to fall behind in school, making them more likely to drop out and wind up incarcerated.

This view was effectively inscribed into law by a 2014 letter from the Obama administration’s Office of Civil Rights. The letter warned public school administrators that traditional disciplinary measures could violate federal nondiscrimination law.

As a result, over half the states and several large municipal districts installed severe restrictions on school discipline. In the most extreme case, the Los Angeles Unified School District has effectively banned suspensions entirely.

“Restorative justice,” a fancy term for trying to talk students into behaving better, has replaced tried-and-true disciplinary methods. There is little hard empirical evidence that restorative justice works on a large scale.

This shift has resulted, predictably, in more violence.

Take a decision by the past superintendent of the St. Paul, Minnesota district to significantly limit the ability of school staff to interact with the police or impose harsh punishments on bad students.

The level of violent, unruly student behavior quickly spiked to an all-time high. One brawl got so bad, school staff had to close the doors on all the classrooms to prevent any more students from joining in. The bullies knew they could act out with impunity. As one veteran St. Paul teacher put it: “We have a segment of kids who consider themselves untouchable.”

Schools in other anti-suspension districts have suffered similar results. In both Oklahoma City and Baton Rouge, two in three teachers have reported an uptick in bad behavior. Nearly 70 percent of teachers in Jackson, Mississippi say their classrooms spin out of control on a regular basis.

It’s impossible for teachers to restore order if they can’t remove chronically disruptive students from class. The violence continues unabated. Ironically, the victims are often poor students of color the politically correct advocates claim to care about.

Keeping disruptive students in the classroom also impedes other students’ learning. Adding just one trouble-prone kid to a 20-student classroom can significantly reduce reading and math test scores, according to a study by researchers at the University of California at Davis and the University of Pittsburgh.

Students need an escape hatch. They shouldn’t be forced to attend violent public schools just because their parents can’t afford to enroll them in private schools or move to better districts.

Expanding school choice programs can give these kids a shot at a better future.

Consider the case of Zaya Lumumba, a teenager subjected to sustained bullying at her public school in small-town Indiana. Her distraught parents applied for a state-run school scholarship program for low- and middle-income students and then used the money to move Zaya to a private Catholic school nearby. Her mood immediately improved, as did her academics; she registered a top grade point average her first semester at her new school.

Politically correct administrators are trapping young people in violent schools. School choice can liberate them.

Lance T. Izumi is the Koret Senior Fellow in Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute. He is also the author of the newly released book, “The Corrupt Classroom.”