A Classic Case of Leftist Blindness to Tradeoffs Causing More Harm Than Good
Like essentially all claims about causes and effects with respect to societal phenomena (no matter who makes such claims), what follows cannot be proved or disproved with certitude. With humility, therefore, what follows is a case for the claim that the leftist policies adopted by Broward County officials several years before the February 14, 2018, Parkland, Florida, school shooting (the “Shooting”) were a major contributing factor in creating an environment that substantially increased the likelihood of a school shooting in the county.
As I have often said,[i] societal problems have no solutions—only tradeoffs. In light of this reality, it is irresponsible for policymakers not to rigorously and as objectively as possible (1) identify the foreseeable negative consequences of every proposed policy and (2) assess the probability that a proposed policy will achieve less good than hoped and that the negative consequences will be greater than anticipated. After having faithfully done that analysis, the policy should be adopted only if the risk-adjusted value of positive consequences substantially exceeds the risk-adjusted value of foreseeable negative consequences. The policy should not be adopted if the net positive results is not a substantial improvement because policymakers should recognize that their duty is to act on behalf of the public and that their personal interests are unavoidably in conflict with the best interests of the public.
Let’s sort out why that is true. When the public determines something is “not right” (e.g., a disproportionate percentage of disadvantaged students wind up in the “school-to-prison pipeline”), the public demands that policymakers “do something” to make it better. Sadly, the default assumption of a majority of the public is that government can “make it better.” Insufficient regard (if any regard at all) is given to the possibility that every remedy has negative side effects and that often the side effects are worse than the disease. Politicians can gain popularity, accolades, campaign contributions, and reelections by “doing something”—even if it is unclear whether that “something” will do more good than harm. Sadly, the situation is worse than that. Politicians can gain the benefits of “doing something” even if it is clearly foreseeable that what they propose will do more harm than good. Far too many of them act anyway because the potential benefits to themselves of doing something are large, and the potential costs to themselves of doing nothing are also large. Setting aside the prevalence of corruption (which is why many policies and laws are made), contrary to what politicians say, the real rationale for many of our policies is that having palm leaves laid before your feet by jubilant crowds is much more gratifying than being run out of town on a rail.
The Broward County government’s initiatives leading up to the Shooting present a vivid example of the kinds of problems created by policies that (1) are primarily informed by myopic, nearly exclusive attention to leftist priorities (in this case, lowering the number of students who enter the school-to-prison pipeline—a worthy goal in search of a workable “solution” that does more good than harm) and (2) pay insufficient attention to the knowable (much less the possibility of unforeseeable) negative consequences of the policies (i.e., the tradeoffs).[ii] By clinging to such myopic focus on the good they hoped to achieve, leftist policymakers became blinded to the harm their policies were likely to cause. In particular, this post sorts out why Broward’s policies are yet another tragic example of such leftist blindness leading to practices that do more harm than good.
Prior to 2011, government officials in some Florida counties were concerned that if they continued to enforce the duly adopted criminal laws, then they would continue to see a large number and a disproportionate percentage of non-white students being sent from schools to prison.[iii] (See Author’s Note.[iv]) This phenomenon was dubbed “the school-to-prison pipeline.” Dade County Public Schools officials, in cooperation with the Miami police and other officials, adopted a policy of not reporting certain crimes to the police. It is fair to say that Miami-Dade became a “sanctuary city” for high school criminals.
With their touted 60 percent[v] “reduction in juvenile delinquencies,”[vi] the sanctuary polices earned Miami-Dade officials kudos from the mainstream media, rights activists, and leftists in the general public. Sanctuary policies were a cause for boastingv by the school district and police. Perhaps more important to the government officials’ future prospects, the initiative signaled their fealty to one of President Obama’s major initiatives.[vii] In short, the government officials were benefiting from adopting the new policies irrespective of the net effects that such policies were creating. One effect was that fewer student criminals were being introduced into the criminal justice system.[viii] (As discussed below, this effect is both good and bad, a reality apparently lost on the policy’s makers.)
The government officials in Broward County, which at the time was ranked No. 1[ix] at “pipelining” students into the state’s juvenile justice system, were surely not only embarrassed by that No. 1 ranking but also were surely jealous of the kudos that Miami-Dade officials were receiving in the press and from the glitterati. So, Broward County officials jumped onto the bandwagon. According to NPR, [x] in 2013, “Under a new program adopted by the Broward County School District, non-violent misdemeanors—even those that involve alcohol, marijuana or drug paraphernalia—will now be handled by the schools instead of the police.”
Although the Broward County schools, police, and prosecutors appear to have implemented the policies earlier, in October 2016 the “Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline” was formally adopted by the school board and a long list of police departments, government agencies, and even a judge.
The ostensible concern for adopting the sanctuary policies was to improve the wellbeing of the kinds of students who had previously been dumped into the school-to-prison pipeline. Helping those students was certainly a noble aspiration. When it comes to helping students stay out of the school-to-prison pipeline, there are two basic approaches: (1) enable/cause students to become the kind of people who do not intentionally inflict harm on others or (2) lower the penalties on (or establish new “get out of jail free” cards for) students who intentionally inflict harm on others. President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper”[xi] program focused on helping kids get on the right path; i.e., the program used the first approach.[xii] However, President Obama’s “Executive Order — White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans” called on schools not to exercise “methods that result in disparate use of disciplinary tools,” and the Broward County policies were a manifestation of the second approach. (As discussed below, Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program and his Executive Order undermine each other to some degree.)
When the Broward County program was adopted, the foreseeable and likely harm (up to and including people being wounded or killed by gunfire) that the policies would or might inflict on all students (including students who the new policies were ostensibly designed to help) was given short shrift or ignored altogether. Those tradeoffs were also (perhaps intentionally) obscured by public pronouncements attempting to justify the program. (I suspect that most officials were blind to the negative consequences of their actions; i.e., they were incompetent.) Those officials who were aware of but intentionally imposed those risks in an effort to improve their own standing in the leftist community or to shore up their self-esteem or reelection prospects—which was surely the case with respect to some—are truly damnable.
Without active, persistent, and effective moral education (which is nearly the opposite of postmodern “moral” indoctrination[xiii]) and discipline in schools, morality and discipline will continue to decrease. Having good morals and acting civilly are essential for a good life.[xiv] Students who get little or poor moral instruction (or possibly instruction to be immoral) and discipline at home are disproportionately helped by effective moral instruction and discipline at school. Feelings of sorrow for children whose homes instill insufficient or poor moral instruction or discipline are a hallmark of good people. When, however, those justifiable and noble feelings result in a person’s support for policies that reduce the likelihood of those children getting such instruction (and thereby limiting the possibility of their flourishing), those feelings make matters worse for the people who supporters believed the policies would help. Sadly, that is often, if not usually, the case.
One of the most important life lessons a child can be taught is how to be a person who exhibits good morals, self-discipline, and likeability[xv] (“good people” for short—regardless of what caused them to be good). The presence of moral and disciplined people in schools is especially important where the potency of peer pressure is at its maximum. Good people want to avoid inflicting harm on others. Hanging around people who provide positive examples is salutary. More important, hanging around people who either want to inflict harm on others or are sanguine to inflicting harm on others as long as the perpetrator benefits instill negative attitudes and behaviors in fellow students—especially in those who struggle to fit in. Consequently, a higher portion of “not good” people in a student body means that bad influences are more prevalent. If crime pays, even erstwhile good kids are tempted to turn bad.
That effectively disciplining bad behavior reduces bad behavior and that lack of discipline increases bad behavior are undisputable. When potential gains from crime are not sufficiently offset by general and effective moral disapprobation from the community and/or an appropriately high prospect of sufficient punishment, there will be more crime in schools. Absent sound moral instruction, members of the student community are less likely to know how to distinguish which moral beliefs should be shunned or encouraged. Worse, if policies are adopted that imply that crimes and other uncivil behaviors should be tolerated instead of met with deserving punishment or moral disapprobation, the wrong moral lessons are taught to all the students. These realities appear to have been discounted or ignored by the Broward County officials in adopting and implementing their policies.
It is not that policymakers were oblivious to all of the realities described above. At the time of the adoption of the new policies, Michaelle Valbrun-Pope, executive director of Student Support Initiatives for Broward County Public Schools, said, “We’re not compromising school safety. We’re really saving the lives of kids.”[xvi] This statement reveals that the executive director was aware of the arguments that making the campus more accommodating and profitable for criminals would cause overall school safety to decline. No objective and reasonable observer would doubt that if the negative consequences of crime are lowered or criminals are not removed from schools, then overall school safety will be compromised. It is also true that prisons are often both dangerous and the opposite of rehabiliatory and that keeping student criminals out of the prison system could save the lives of some student criminals. Moreover, to the extent that a criminal student’s school has programs that enable erstwhile criminal students to eschew criminality, those programs cannot be administered to former students in prison. So, an honest and accurate statement by the executive director would have been “We’re compromising school safety for most of the students, but we are very likely saving the lives of some students.” Rather than being honest, she offered up the doublespeak quoted above. Because the mainstream media is simpatico with such leftist goals, it lets leftist government officials get away with this kind of doublespeak.
On another occasion, the executive director said, “The first step was to determine what that bad number — 1,062 school-related arrests — actually meant. Mostly (in fact, in about 70 percent of cases), the behavior was a misdemeanor. These are lower-level, nonviolent offenses that nonetheless funneled scores of students into the justice system.”[xvii] This doublespeak, however, ignores the more important fact that all misdemeanors are both crimes and uncivil; i.e., toleration of them conveys bad influences on all the students. Worse, these crimes are often gateway crimes to felonies. More important, she obviously wanted her listeners to focus on the 70 percent number instead of the 30 percent of crimes that are violent misdemeanors (or perhaps felonies—she got away with being unclear on that point) and will go unpunished under the new policy.
One might be comforted by the fact that the policy only requires misdemeanors not be reported to the police. That comfort, however, would not be well founded: “The [school board, police, prosecutors, public defenders, and judicial system representatives] identified 12 misdemeanor offenses, including judgment-call charges, like disorderly conduct, and more concrete behavior, like vandalism and possession of marijuana.”[xviii] Belying what this pronouncement said, over time, school officials and others involved came to the conclusion that limiting the scope of the reporting exemptions just to nonviolent misdemeanors would result in an increase in the number of non-white, non-Asian students who would enter the school-to-prison pipeline. In short, felonies were eventually tolerated and not reported to the police.[xix]
Initially, with increased tolerance and increasingly aggressive non-reporting of criminal behavior, the statistical goals that the officials wanted were achieved. As a consequence, more criminals were roaming the schools, and—as should have been expected—the criminals tested the limits of the leniency. If the fun and gain of lawlessness is not sufficiently punished, then why quit? Why not test the limits? The number of crimes that were more serious than the listed misdemeanors escalated, yet school officials did not dare do anything that would cause their “favorable” statistics to “worsen.” To keep their reported crimes from escalating, tolerance begat a need for further tolerance of more serious offenses. For example, another Broward County school, Dillard High School, did essentially nothing after 14-year-old Mariah Green was violently beaten by a gang of girls (caught on this video). About the school’s handling of the beat down, a Broward school board member said that “more aggressive action should have been taken.”[xx] Of course, reporting the crime to the police was not in the best interest of the officials involved. So, despite the girl’s mother’s fruitless complaints to the administration on multiple occasions about the tolerated mistreatment of her daughter that culminated in the gang beating she suffered, the parents had to sue the district for relief. After quite a bit of searching, I could find no report of how that case was resolved. A reasonable assumption is that the school district, upon a condition of confidentiality, paid big bucks (funded by taxpayers whose children are bearing the brunt of the policies) so that the district could continue it’s flawed, self-serving agenda.
That the policies were self-serving and illogical was made clear by the rest of the Broward County school board member’s comment about the incident. Apparently, the school hallway beatdown was not reported because it was considered a mutual combat situation. (As if neither party to the fight started the fight! How convenient a “solution” to the potential reporting problem.) “‘If what we did was mutual combat, it obviously didn’t work,’ Osgood said. ‘So now we’re looking at it from a bullying perspective.’”[xxi] You see, students in a “good” society must endure beatings (and eventual shootings) in order to serve the goal of avoiding disproportionate incarceration (as if proportional incarceration is objectively appropriate despite the disproportionate level of criminality by different groups of students). On the other hand, “bullying” cannot be tolerated because so many leftists hate bullying (even though much bullying is neither violent nor illegal). Perversely, it serves the board members’ purposes to go easy on criminality but hard on bullying—so that is what they do. The key is that under their policies, bullying need not be reported to the police even if the bullying is also illegal.
Can anyone prove that the Shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was an ineluctable consequence of the Broward County policies discussed above? No. However, one should realize not only that mass indiscriminate shootings are on the rise in America but also that mass shootings in public places against unknown strangers have become a big deal since around 1960.[xxii] It is fair and reasonable to believe that tolerance of and leftist attitudes and excuses for immorality and criminality in schools coupled with vastly less traditional moral instruction and discipline are contributing factors as to why we are now experiencing more indiscriminate mass school shootings.
It should be noted that the decision not to follow the law was a clear usurpation of legislative powers not granted to any of the people involved in the adoption of the new policy. However, no other government body whose duty is to hold their fellow government bodies accountable took any effective action to prevent or reverse this unlawful usurpation of legislative power by non-legislators. In fact, some of the supposed watchdogs were in on the action. Why? The simple fact is that government officials get much more favorable press when they adopt leftist policies and poses. Worse, they get unmitigated grief and ridicule from the mainstream media if they do not toe the leftist line. Far too many politicians simply do not have the courage to do their jobs and risk being falsely labeled as racists or worse. They meekly let these Titanic policies sail on.
UPDATE May 23, 2018. Here is some sad confirmation of some of the things I said above: “Schools’ culture of tolerance lets students like Nikolas Cruz slide.”
[i] For example, see “Solutions.” I owe much to Thomas Sowell for bringing this reality to my attention.
[ii] The champion of this approach was FDR. He explained, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” With this comment, FDR revealed his obliviousness to the negative consequences of “regime uncertainty” that such an approach causes. This approach to governance was a prime contributor to the length of the Great Depression.
[iii] Broward County District Superintendent Robert Runcie observed, “We saw huge differentials in achievement gaps among white, black and Hispanics students. . . . Black males in particular were in probably some of the worst situation in this district.” State Judge Elijah Williams said, “Although African-American kids make up just 40 percent of the school district’s population, they account for 71 percent of the school arrests. . . . We had the highest arrest rate in the state of Florida. And coincidentally, we had the highest drop-out rate,” Id.
See also the third “WHEREAS” clause of the “Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline.”
[iv] AUTHOR’S NOTE ON “DISPARATE IMPACT”: Sorting out the fallacies of and problems created by using “disparate impact” as a justification for policies must await another blog post. Suffice it to say that if any subset of a society distinguishes itself from the rest of society’s subsets by being the only subset that believes poking people in the eye with sticks is cool rather than abominable, then any law that punishes eye poking with sticks will necessarily only affect that one subset; i.e., it would have an extremely disproportionate impact on “eye pokers.” Nevertheless, a law that punished eye pokers would be both rational and salutary. Reasonable steps should be taken to induce members of that subset to change their views about the uncivil practice. Punishment of the perpetrators of such uncivil acts (e.g., putting bars between perpetrators and their potential victims) could be both one of many inducements to achieve that worthy goal and a way to protect their potential victims.
[v] “MIAMI-DADE SCHOOLS POLICE REDUCES JUVENILE DELINQUENCY BY 60 PERCENT.” (Of course, despite the public announcement’s claim, no 60 percent reduction in delinquencies actually occurred; there was a reduction in the number of reported juvenile delinquencies—surely delinquencies increased as a result of the lessening of the negative consequences for committing the crimes.)
[vi] Leftists appear to understand that incentives matter when it comes to policies that advance leftist agendas. For example, they argue that if the cost of cigarettes, sugary drinks, or carbon dioxide emissions is increased with new taxes, then fewer of those things will be produced. Conversely, if the costs of those items are reduced by repealing the taxes, then the producers’ and consumers’ cost-benefit analyses will cause them to produce/buy more of the items. Yet, these same leftists appear blind to the fact that, in general, reducing the cost of crimes will increase the production of crimes.
[vii] See “Executive Order — White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.” “Obama wants to stop ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ for minorities.”
[viii] This is not to say that all the consequences of sending fewer students into the school-to-prison pipeline are negative. For the fraction of the students who were saved from becoming hardened criminals, the effect of the policy was beneficial. The fact that the new policy shields actual criminals (many, if not most of whom will continue their criminal ways in school and afterwards) from the duly adopted laws is mentioned to clarify what is actually happening, and to highlight the negative consequences that are being ignored, obscured, and suppressed by the government officials.
[ix] “These districts fought the school-to-prison pipeline. Can Pittsburgh learn their lessons?”
[x] “Fla. School District Trying To Curb School-To-Prison Pipeline.”
[xi] See “My Brother’s Keeper.”
[xii] Many anecdotal success stories have been attributed to the multibillion-dollar My Brother’s Keeper initiative. See “My Brother’s Keeper—2016 Progress Report.” I certainly wish the program well, but I fear that it will suffer the same lack of success that the Head Start Program did. See “Can We Be Hard-Headed About Preschool? A Look at Head Start,” a Brookings Institution report. Whether My Brother’s Keeper is a net positive use of the nation’s resources or not, the people who spearheaded and run it will benefit, so the program will likely persist (consuming funds that could be used on better programs) regardless.
[xiii] “Morality is personal – Believing ethics to be relative, postmodernists subject morality to personal opinion. They define morality as each person’s private code of ethics without the need to follow traditional values and rules.”
[xiv] Victor Hugo may have explained this best in Les Misérables. An elderly Jean Valjean was attacked from behind by a young, strong gang member. An instant later, Valjean had the thug pinned to the ground. Valjean then explained why the thug was on the wrong path. Click HERE. Start reading at “How old are you?”
[xv] As to how a parent should do that, see “Jordan Peterson – How To Raise Your Children.”
[xvi] See “Did the Progressive ‘Broward County Solution’ Cost 17 Student Lives?”
[xvii] See endnote ix.
[xix] “At least three students showed school administrators Cruz’s near-constant messages threatening to kill them — e.g., ‘I am going to enjoy seeing you down on the grass,’ ‘Im going to watch ypu bleed,’ ‘iam going to shoot you dead.’ . . . Threatening to kill someone is a felony.”
[xx] “Attorney files notice to sue in Dillard bullying attack.”
[xxii] “Mass Shootings in America: A Historical Review.” This report, however, should be tempered by “Are Mass Shootings Becoming More Frequent?” For additional context see “Dead Wrong® with Johan Norberg – School Shootings: Really Increasing?”
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[…] viii] The problems with this idea were addressed in “Slowing the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”—At What Cost?” […]