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NEA “Safe Schools” Task Force Ignores Teacher Safety

Over the 4th of July weekend, while most Americans were celebrating, the NEA held their annual Representational Assembly. The press has covered some of the proposed resolutions, but one interesting item that has not received much coverage was the NEA’s new policy to “ensure safe, just, and equitable schools,” which now supersedes the union’s former policy on student discipline.

The 80-page task force report, which was written by a team appointed by NEA President Becky Pringle in October 2021, is heavy on social justice but light on the safety issues that teachers are actually dealing with in the classroom – like the recent rise of student violence toward teachers, and increase in school shootings. While the task force was organized to “identify criteria for safe, just, and equitable schools and explore the role of law enforcement in such schools,” the report is more focused on using progressive disciplinary measures with students than on the safety of teachers.

The report outlines the experiences the appointees brought to the table with them, including the challenges from events like the death of George Floyd, the “trauma” of school closures from COVID-19 and its impact on students of color, and “the wave of political attacks on public school educators, and attempts to silence the history and lived experiences of our students.”

In the eyes of the task force members, these events call for a reimagining of how schools handle student behavior by shifting from the use of traditional discipline methods to the use of restorative justice. In a school setting, restorative justice focuses on mediation rather than punitive discipline. For example, a teacher who would normally give a disruptive student a detention might instead suggest the student meet with a mediator to determine how to build a better relationship with the teacher.

While the NEA’s recent report is long, little detail is given on actual, actionable tasks. Here’s the action plan proposed by the task force, which uses just about every available buzzword but otherwise doesn’t say much:

  1. Identify and support opportunities to engage, activate, and mobilize members and leaders to organize to achieve safe, just, and equitable schools for every student, educator, parent/guardian, and community.
  2. Develop an Association-wide understanding of the issues and impacts of the criminalization and policing of students.
  3. Develop and strengthen NEA’s partnerships and coalitions with organizations, movements, and legislators to advocate and organize for safe, just, and equitable schools.
  4. Integrate and align the Safe, Just, and Equitable schools vision and criteria across the NEA Enterprise priorities and activities.

Of course students should be free to learn in a safe, just, and equitable public school; however, many of the subsequent recommendations seem far beyond the purpose of a teachers’ union. The recommendations include:

  • Seek remedy to economic justice issues including, but not limited to, affordable housing, housing insecurity, food insecurity, and access to health care and child care; and
  • Eradicate racist laws, policies, and practices; the criminalization and policing of students, families, and communities of Native, Asian, Black, Latin(o/a/x), Middle Eastern

Other than a brief sentence about air filtration, there is no call to action for ensuring the safety of teachers, which recently seems to be a serious issue. Teacher safety would seem an appropriate thing for a teachers union to invest resources in, above all else.

Instead, once again, the NEA has taken the path of extreme social justice, even though it may hurt teachers. And this time, they are going a step further and are even targeting their own members for criticism. Among their recommendations for classifying NEA members, the task force says: “NEA shall develop and implement educational efforts to engage White members who resist identifying racially (many of whom currently choose to identify as “other” rather than “White”).”

Not exactly a unifying message.

Brigette Herbst

Brigette Herbst is the Senior Organizing Director of Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2018, Brigette’s career included working in the public sector for New York State, teaching elementary school, coaching high school sports, and working as a municipal county employee. This unique experience offers Brigette an inside perspective on public employee culture in New York. She focuses on educating New Yorkers about their constitutional rights with regard to union membership and promoting fair treatment of workers. Brigette has her bachelor’s degree in history and politics and her master’s degree in elementary education. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling and planning trips for her family.