by Karen R. Effrem, MD
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.)
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fact, this was such an important issue that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who chaired the commission, officially rescinded the policy just three days after the report’s release.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.
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:
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.”
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:
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