Safety is of preeminent concern to families when evaluating the educational options available for their children, ranking even higher than academic quality or extracurricular activities. This concern is exacerbated further in a city like Milwaukee, which has suffered for decades under an extremely high crime rate, particularly in our poor and predominantly African American communities. 

The goal of safe schools often comes into conflict with another goal, that of reducing suspensions and expulsions. The Obama administration attempted to force ‘feel good’ discipline policies around the country in the name of halting the ‘school to prison’ pipeline, particularly for minority students. Unfortunately, the federal government has continued to enforce these policies in the Trump administration, who recently settled with Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) on a case involving differences in suspension rates in the district for white and minority students. MPS seems intent on meeting the demands of the feds, and will reportedly hold at least six meetings public meetings in the next month to address the topic. 

My colleague and I recently conducted research on the negative role that discipline policy from the federal level under the Obama administration has had on academic outcomes. Suspension rates have fallen dramatically in Milwaukee and around the state in recent years, largely as a result of federal threats. We have seen in our own research that these policies negatively impact academic outcomes, but what about actual measures of safety? A new survey from UW-Milwaukee and Milwaukee Public Schools may help us answer that question. 

Annually, MPS teachers, staff and students are surveyed on a wide variety of topics via Essentials of School Culture and Climate Survey. Most critical here are the following three measures of school safety: safety in the hallways, safety in the bathrooms, and safety in the classrooms themselves. Students answer on a four-point scale from “Unsafe” to “Very Safe.” Across all three areas, we see significant year-to-year increases in the percentage of students responding in the lowest two categories—“unsafe” or only “somewhat safe.” In just two years there was a 3.5 percent increase in the number of students saying they feel unsafe in the bathroom, a 2.5 percent increase in those saying the same in hallways, and 1.19 percent increase in the share saying they feel unsafe in the classroom.

Of 90 schools with data for both school years of this analysis, 49 schools (54 percent) experienced an increase in the reports of unsafe conditions. The vast majority of these schools have implemented PBIS to a high standard, even receiving awards from the PBIS Network of Wisconsin for their quality implementation. The school with the largest year-to-year increase in reported safety concerns was Holmes Elementary, which received gold-level recognition for its behavioral reforms during the 2016-17 school year.

Even as alternative discipline policies take a stronger hold in this city and around the country, the evidence is building that such policies are having a negative impact on student safety. Across all of the measures of school safety in this study, we observe a year-to-year increase in reported danger. More work should be done with this data to look for trends over a longer time frame, and to investigate more fully the relationship between PBIS and increases in reported danger.

We have called repeatedly in recent months for the federal yoke to be removed from local schools when it comes to student discipline. These recent survey results should be disturbing even to those who support discipline alternatives as it is becoming increasingly clear that such policies are ineffectual at improving student behavior in many cases, and may actually exacerbate problems.

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