Photo credit: US Department of Education via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

4 Important Takeaways from the Federal School Safety Report


The Federal Commission on School Safety released their final report this past week. Given its sweeping scope, the report naturally contained many recommendations that were seen as controversial, regardless of one’s perspective on a particular issue. Here are four key takeaways regarding the issues of academic excellence, parental rights, privacy, and freedom of conscience. (The formal comments I submitted on these issues are available here.)

1.) The commission correctly recommended rescinding the Obama-era school discipline policy.

In fact, this was such an important issue that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who chaired the commission, officially rescinded the policy just three days after the report’s release. She said in a statement:

Every student has the right to attend school free from discrimination. They also have the right to be respected as individuals and not treated as statistics. In too many instances, though, I’ve heard from teachers and advocates that the previous administration’s discipline guidance often led to school environments where discipline decisions were based on a student’s race and where statistics became more important than the safety of students and teachers.

This is a fantastic decision, and there was strong support to do so from organizations across the political spectrum, including Bloomberg News, the Manhattan Institute, the American Principles Project, Eagle Forum, and Education Liberty Watch. The commission is to be strongly commended for this recommendation, as is the secretary for following through so quickly to rescind the policy. The policy was creating a danger to those in the classroom and interfering with an orderly learning environment. It was also very costly to districts undergoing a civil rights investigation and based on a very shaky legal foundation.

2.) While correctly highlighting some dangers of prescribing psychotropic medications to children, it downplayed or ignored the connection between some of these drugs to violence and suicide.

Here is the key recommendation of the commission for the federal government:

HHS operating divisions, such as the National Institutes of Health, should support research to answer questions regarding effectiveness, safety, and tolerability of psychotropic treatment in youth (including long-term effects) as well as research on safe, effective alternatives, such as psychosocial interventions.

Unfortunately, this recommendation ignores the already abundant evidence showing various dangers of these treatments:

  • Evidence from European researchers has shown that “the number of suicides among adults and children taking antidepressant drugs is actually 15 times greater than the number calculated by the U.S. drugs watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration.” [Emphasis added]
  • Despite the concept put forward by pharmaceutical industry funded researchers that the FDA’s most serious black box warning on antidepressants for 14 years has resulted in an increase in suicide, only two new (SSRI) antidepressants have been approved for depression in children and teens and the warning remains.
  • Over half of youth were receiving treatment before contemplating or attempting suicide. This contradicts the claim that lack of access to treatment is a cause of suicide in youth and supports the idea that increased psychiatric drug use may be contributing to youth suicide.
  • A clear link between psychiatric drugs and violence is documented in research from both the U.S. and Europe. This grave concern was dismissed in one sentence by one psychiatrist at a commission hearing without any opportunity for contrary evidence to be presented. Sadly, the commission ignored our recommendation that there should be a forensic analysis of medications taken by perpetrators of school violence.
  • There are other grave side effects besides the ones mentioned. Although the report did rightly mention diabetes and other metabolic problems related to antipsychotic use, agitation and restlessness that may lead to suicide with SSRI antidepressants and loss of appetite with stimulants, and the “significant uncertainty about the long-term impact of psychotropic medications on developing brains,” the report did not mention other very important problems. These include brain damage, movement disorders, suicide, and a 25-year shortened life span associated with the antipsychotics and aggression and hostility related to the stimulants.

In addition to these direct problems with medications, some of the non-drug alternatives supported in the report — like the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program — are also very problematic. The federal technical support center for PBIS admits that “school wide PBIS is only in its infancy” and that there are no large-scale controlled studies supporting the program, only “single subject designs.”

3.) The report’s recommendation to expand school-based mental health screening is highly concerning.

The report erroneously states:

Screening that identifies emotional and behavioral problems is a first step in promoting early intervention and, if necessary, referral to treatment. Schools are a viable setting for screening, which could be incorporated just like visual and hearing screening.

Here are some of the many reasons discussed in our comments and elsewhere documenting why this is a very bad idea:

  • Screening is notoriously inaccurate because it is based on admittedly subjective criteria, with false positive rates as high as 84 percent. With that high a false positive rate, already scarce resources will be wasted doing further evaluation and treatment for children that do not need these services, and worse yet, prescribing medications with all of the dangerous problems described above.
  • Highly trained psychiatrists admit that they are unable to predict which troubled youth will become violent. Why should untrained school personnel be screening children with potentially life-altering consequences based on these subjective criteria?

4.) It’s too early to tell whether the report’s recommendations will preserve (or erode) existing privacy protections.

It was heartening to see that the commission did not recommend further eroding already very weak privacy protections, but instead suggested educating districts on how to appropriately share current information in a safety emergency and updating the 40-year-old Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). However, given the push for more inaccurate mental screening and the fact that the HIPAA privacy rule is not protective at all of sensitive medical information, including mental health information, this could still be very problematic.

In summary, the commission should be commended for recommending the rescission of the 2014 discipline guidance and acknowledging the significant danger of psychiatric drugs for children. However, there will be much work to be done in 2019 to make evident the link between these drugs and violence, stopping mental screening, and protecting privacy.

Thank you for your support in 2018 and stay tuned as the policy battles of this next year take shape.

Photo credit: US Department of Education via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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