Thirty Years at Risk-Terrel H. Bell


When tracing back the linage of the present day school reform movement, all paths converge to a federal report presented to the public in 1983 entitled, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. For educators or for those who value public education, the impact of the report on public education cannot be overestimated. The report needlessly removed the credibility and influence that professional educators had over their schools and attacked public education by proclaiming academic achievement in our schools was on a downward spiral and threatened our technological, military, and economic standing in the world (Guthrie & Springer, 2004). Fortunately for our country, the report was wrong all accounts. Unfortunately for teachers and students, the media, whose responsibility it is to question the validity of such claims embraced the findings with such enthusiasm that ultimately educational decision-making for children in public schools has since been transferred from teachers in classrooms and to this day remains in the hands of non-educators, profiteers and politicians at both the state and federal levels.

Years after the A Nation at Risk was published, it is still considered one of the most influential policy polemics in the history of our country (Guthrie & Springer, 2004). Its findings and influence on public education are not in question. This article will focus on the members of the NCEE that developed the report that ultimately altered the course of public education and seek the influences on the commissioners that lead to the report.

Before A Nation at Risk

Cuban and Tyack (1995) explain that policy discussions and political action toward education are a product of the period that preceded it. The two decades that preceded the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk were certainly unsettling for the nation. From my own experiences as a public school and college student from 1965-1982, I was not oblivious to the social upheaval of the times that included Vietnam war protests, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the women’s liberation movement, desegregation of public schools through forced busing, the Watergate scandal and future resignation of President Richard Nixon, soaring gasoline prices and the OPEC oil embargo in the early 1970’s, runaway inflation that produced skyrocketing interest rates and the seemingly endless counting of days during the Iran hostage crisis. This period of turmoil followed the omnipresent Cold War and the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, the civil rights movement in the early 1960’s, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and LBJ’s passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965.

School reform mandated by the federal government’s involvement into public schools through the ESEA and busing in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Diane Ravitch describes this period of public education reforms as “freewheeling” in an era that sought to liberate students from academic requirements and to encourage a respect for cultural diversity (Ravitch, 2010, p. 23). My first memory of turmoil in public education occurred while in the seventh grade as a student in the Dallas Independent School District in the district’s first year of forced busing during the 1970-71 school year. Numerous student fights between racial denominations coincided with the Dallas ISD abolishing all requirements of a student dress code in this era of long hair, hot pants, and wired-framed glasses. As a sophomore in a suburban school district adjacent to Dallas in 1974, students were not only allowed to bring cigarettes to school but a fifteen minute period was set aside during the school day so students could smoke on campus. In Washington DC, the final days of the decade witnessed the creation of the U.S. Department of Education as a cabinet level position by the Jimmy Carter Administration and approved by the 96th Congress in 1979 by a narrow 210-206 vote in the House (Vinovskis, 1999).

It was during this backdrop that Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980. Reagan had little interest in federal responsibility for public education and had campaigned to abolish the newly created Department of Education, provide vouchers and tax credits for public schools, and restore school prayer (Bracey, 2003 PDK).

The Secretary of Education-Terrel H. Bell

Terrel Howard Bell, a career public educator from Utah accepted the position of Secretary of Education in the Reagan Cabinet with the understanding that he assist in fulfilling Reagan’s campaign promise to abolish the department of education (Bell, 1988). Bell described Ronald Reagan as having an interest in public education but felt the responsibility should be retained at the local and state levels (Bell 1988). Like Reagan, Bell agreed with local and state control of public schools but unlike the former President, felt public education needed influence and leadership at the national level (Bell, Memoir).

The development of A Nation at Risk can be contributed to one person, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, T. H. Bell.

T.H. Bell was a career public educator with experience as a teacher, principal, school superintendent and the Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Prior to accepting the position of Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, Bell was the Commissioner and Chief Executive Officer of the Utah System of Higher Education (Bell, 1988).

Bell was not a novice to the inner workings of Washington DC having served as Deputy Commissioner in the in the U.S. Office of Education in 1970 and as U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1974 to 1976. At that time the Office of Education was a part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. David P. Gardner, a good friend of Bell and chair of the National Commission on Excellence in Education described Bell as a humble seasoned educator “sophisticated in the ways of the nation’s capital” whose “detractors often mistook his self-effacing manner for weakness at best and ineptitude at worst” (Gardner, 2005, p. 164).

Bell was raised in southeast Idaho with his siblings in extreme poverty by a single mother. He was forever grateful for the assistance of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program that provided him a part-time job and salary of $17 per month through the National Youth Administration (NYA) that he used to pay $11.50 per term for college tuition and “always felt a special aversion toward any person, group, or idea that obstructs or denies the opportunity to become educated” (Bell, 1988, p. 103). After serving in the South Pacific as a Marine during World War II, Bell again took advantage of federal financial assistance provided by the GI Bill to earn his bachelor degree and with subsequent grants and financial aid through fellowships was able to earn his masters and Ph.D. degrees.

Although Bell had testified before the U.S. Senate to establish the Department of Education in 1979, he initially had reservations for the need of a cabinet level position for education but had an epiphany for its need while dealing with education bashers in the Reagan Administration. After the Reagan administration denied Bell a presidentially appointed commission to report on the state of America’s public education system, Bell appointed his own commission for the study with hopes that President Reagan would accept the report (Bell, 1988). Bell’s intent was to prepare a report for the President that would praise public education and maintain support at the federal level (Guthrie & Springer, 2004). In his position of Secretary of the Department of Education, Bell wanted to rally the American people around their schools and colleges in much the same way Sputnik had shaken the county in 1957 (Bell 1988). Bell wanted a “tough, powerful, persuasive report on the condition of American education” that included “recommendations for change” and improvement (Bell, 1988, p. 115).

On August 26, 1981, without the support of President Reagan or his advisors, Bell created the National Commission on Excellence in Education to study and report on the quality of education in America. Nineteen months later in April of 1983, A Nation at Risk was officially accepted by President Ronald Reagan and changed the direction of public education for thirty years.


Bell, T. H. (1988). The thirteenth man: A Reagan cabinet memoir. New York: The Free  Press.

Bracey, G. W. (2003, April). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of “a nation at risk”. Phi Delta Kappa International, Vol. 84, No. 8, 616-621.

Bracey, G. W. (2007, October). The first time ‘everything changed:’ The 17th Bracey report on th e condition of public education, Phi Delta Kappa, Vol. 89, No. 2, 199-136.

Cuban, L. & Tyack, D. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gardner, D. P. (2005). Earning my degree: Memoirs of an American university president. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.

Guthrie, J. W., & Springer, M. G. (2004). A nation at risk: Did “wrong” reasoning result in “right” results? At what cost? Peabody Journal of Education, 79(1), 7-35.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.

Vinovskis, M. A. (1999). The road to Charlottesville: The 1989 education summit. Institute for Social Research and School of Public Policy: University of Michigan.

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Thirty Years at Risk-Introduction

It’s not difficult to identify seminal moments in our nation’s history to explain or justify the reaction from our country to those moments. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to our direct involvement in World War II even though the United States was heavily involved prior to December 7, 1941. The current War on Terror had its seminal moment on the crystal clear morning of September 11, 2001. At the exact time of the attack on the World Trade Towers in New York City, this author was a first year public school superintendent in the small west-central Texas town of Ranger.

For public educators, the seminal moment for the political and media driven war on public education began thirty years ago this month on April 26, 1983 when President Ronald Reagan accepted a report commissioned by an education department he wanted to abolish, from a Secretary of Education that did not serve during his second term as President. The Secretary of Education was Terrel H. Bell and the name of the report was A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.

For thirty years, politicians have used school reform for election campaign fodder and the media’s thirst for negative reporting have merged into a devilish marriage which slowly works to dismantle this county’s most important public institution. Strangely, education reform appears to be the only topic that both Democrats and Republicans can agree and those who push back against the constant attacks on the system of public education are labeled as keepers of the status quo.

The aftermath of a NAR is a scattered trail of school reform measures that we know today as high stakes standardized tests which hold schools and teachers accountable for student test scores, career ladder/merit pay performance bonuses for teachers that come and go as state budgets allow, value added measures (VAM) that evaluates teachers on student’s academic gains, state developed curriculum and teacher appraisal systems, school intervention teams, turnaround teams, campus reconstitution (school closure), a newly developed national curriculum (Common Core State Standards) and soon to be utilized national tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards, ESEA (Elementary and  Secondary Education Act) reauthorization that produced No Child Left Behind (NCLB), school vouchers which are intended to direct public school funding to private schools , and the federally sponsored Race to the Top grant which mandates many of the reform measures into one neat package. The list of reform measures is far too lengthy to go into detail concerning each program but the beginning of the reform measures remains the same; they all started or gained significant traction as a result of the thirty-six page federally sponsored report ingeniously written as an open letter to the American public.

This author’s entry into public education as a middle school teacher during the 1982-83 school year coincided with our nation’s political reform measures targeting our public education system. Because we are fully aware of the results of a NAR, the purpose of this and future writings will be to provide a perspective into the events that led to the publication of A Nation at Risk by focusing on these primary questions:


  1. What was the background of the 18 members that comprised the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) that authored the A Nation at Risk?
  2. What information were the NCEE members provided to formulate their opinions?
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Republican Educator for Paul Sadler

In my opinion, anyone in Texas who is a devout supporter of public education should support Paul Sadler for the U.S. Senate.  Although Ted Cruz’s win over David Dewhurst for the Republican nomination was impressive, Paul Sadler knows public education and has an extensive track record of support for public education. Paul Sadler DOES NOT support a school voucher program that would transfer public funds to private schools. Amen!

I’ve only heard Mr. Sadler speak once but I do know his work in the Texas legislature on public educational issues quite well. Mr. Sadler, as chair of the House Education Committee rewrote the entire Texas Education Code in 1995 (Ratliff-Sadler Act) and helped create a more safe working and learning environment for teachers and students. That year, 1995, was my first as a high school principal in rural East Texas. If you’ve ever heard of DAEPs (Discipline Alternative Equation Programs), student code of conducts, the ability for a teacher to remove a disruptive student from her classroom, and mandatory expulsion for serious offenses, then you know of Paul Sadler’s work. That’s the Ratliff-Sadler Act of 1995.

As a classroom teacher from 1982 to 1995, I worked under the previous education code that allowed judges to sentence gang members back to school while awaiting trial for murder. (See Here) Before the Ratliff-Sadler Act, there was a limit on the number of days a disruptive student could be removed from the classrooms. Paul Sadler changed that. Paul Sadler believes in local control for public education and that the best decisions for a child’s education are made closest to that child; a conviction that my party, the Republican Party, once believed in and abide by. Mr. Sadler stated that the federal government’s involvement in public education should be in identifying best practices for teaching and learning and he never supported the concept and implementation of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) from Washington DC.

Today, teachers in Texas have a health insurance program that we know as TRSActive Care. Guess who wrote it. Yep…Paul Sadler! I was actually a member of the TRSActive Care Plan Design Team that met in Austin. Those that don’t know a time before TRSActive Care might not understand the problems that smaller school districts faced in having to bid out and change insurance companies annually and the many problems associated with having to find new health care providers and meeting new deductibles every year. A teacher can now take a job in a different school district and keep their current insurance plan. Heck, today spouses who are educators in different districts can coordinate their health insurance coverage thanks to Paul Sadler.

I’m a professional educator and for that reason I VOTE EDUCATION FIRST.  Paul Sadler is a proven statesman who conservative Republican educators like me can trust and should support.

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Scapegoating Public Education

A scapegoat is one who is blamed and punished for the transgression of others as a way of distracting attention from the real problem. Public Schools have become political scapegoats and campaign fodder for public office seekers. But who would want teachers to be the fall guy for issues in which they have no control? Who would want to distract the public’s attention from the root causes of crime, poverty and health care? What mastermind could concoct such a scheme of blaming teachers for the economy rather than accepting responsibly and being accountable for their own inactions? What kind of individuals could maintain credibility for public school reform issues while at the same time sending their own children to private schools? (How about President’s Clinton, Obama, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, No Child Left Behind author Sandy Kress, etc.).

Politicians love to link the future economic competitiveness of our nation to the county’s education system. It just makes since even though there is no evidence to suggest the two are linked.  Linking the economic success of a nation to the public education system has been discouraged but used for years. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Did the public education system cause the crash of the stock market in 1929 that ushered in the great depression?
  • Was public education linked to the rebound in the economy after World War II and the prosperity that followed in the 1950s?
  • Public education was blamed by politicians and the media for Russia beating the United States into space with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, but was public education exalted only 12 years later when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in the summer of 1969?
  • Public education was targeted for the economic future of our country when A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, but was public education praised for the subsequent economic upturn during the late 1980’s and 1990’s?
  • Because politicians want to link the economic future of our county to the public education system, shouldn’t public schools currently be blamed for the lack of ethical conduct of the Wall Street executives that led to the worst economic downturn since the great depression?

Of course this is nothing new. In a 1982 report prepared for the National Commission on Excellence in Education entitled An Analytic Comparison of Educational Systems: Overview of Purposes, Policies, Structures and Outcomes, University of Massachusetts professors Christopher Hurn and Barbara Burn warned against this practice of linking economic success of a country and its education system saying, “There is no research which clearly demonstrates a relationship between measures of educational quality and economic growth” and “justifications for education in rather narrow economic or utilitarian terms run the risk that if the society does not get richer (and another society which sends less on education does) or the individual does not get a better job, the public will become entirely disenchanted with our educational institutions.”

Unfortunately, the media has a history of not being interested in research based findings unless the story can generate sales. Public schools have always been pretty darn good but pretty darn good stories about our schools don’t make the 6 pm news or the front page of the newspaper.

Diane Ravitch has become the voice of public schools today in much the same way Gerald Bracey did before his passing. We must protect our public schools and keep them away from the profiteers disguised as voucher proponents or test producers wrapped in the cloak of accountability. Our teachers need our support and our classrooms need to return to a more creative environment where children are learning through thinking-not stooped over a test preparation manual. Public schools are not and have never been the problem; they have always been the answer and certainly should not be viewed as a scapegoat for the failed policies of politicians and the journalist that refuse to publish facts about our schools.

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Why Teachers Leave Teaching

I’ve always believed that teachers get into the profession of education for all the right reasons (helping children, making a difference, being a positive example, etc.), and leave the profession for all the wrong reasons. Teachers don’t leave the profession of education because the students were respectful and worked hard in class, the administration was supportive and treated them as professionals, and because they were respected by the community for their willingness to serve the needs of children. They leave the profession because students were disrespectful and belligerent, they perceived the administration as being heavy-handed and didn’t support their needs in the classroom and parents will worked the political or legal system to change classroom standards for the benefit of their own children.

In an article that appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week, Jordon Kohanim explains why after seven years in a Georgia public school system left the profession.

In the article she writes of her frustration with parents saying:

I saw parents who were well positioned financially use their lawyers to manipulate the system into giving their children unfair advantages: extra time that they hadn’t needed in the classroom on state exams, hadn’t needed in the classroom on state exams, extended deadlines for homework, and forgiveness from some assignments. I saw lawyers and parents fighting for accommodations because they wanted to prove a point—not because the children involved need or even used them.

She further explains:

There were teachers frustrated because they were not allowed to require deadlines for homework or essays even when their students had proved they were capable of meeting such standards.

First and foremost, teachers want to teach. That’s what teachers do. They want to have high standards in their classrooms, be supported by their principals and respected by their students. Principals want the same things for teachers and for themselves. Teachers want to set high expectations for students and staff, be respected for what they do by the community and be supported by central administration. Campus administrators don’t want discipline problems on their campus but many times state and federal policy makes that difficult for a variety of reasons.

The difficulty of having and enforcing high expectations is compounded by the difficulty of maintaining high expectations. This is due to the constant attack from parents who want continued modification of standards for the benefit of their own child. It’s not good or bad but just the way it is. As principal of a high school campus that reached the state of Texas highest academic rating four straight years from 1998 to 2001 as well as implemented policy and programs that ensured a safe and orderly environment, I became beaten-downed from fighting the same battles year after year to simply maintain programs and policies that had been proven to be effective. In my final year as principal of that campus I said to my superintendent, “You know Doc, the longer I’m here, the less credibility I have.” The achievements and successes of the past made the achievements and successes of the present less meaningful. Go figure.

Many of Ms. Kohanim’s frustrations in Georgia that led to her leaving the profession are the end result of deeper issues. Her disenchantment with parents and their support of their children is a byproduct of the “public” part of our public education system.

Having and setting high expectations is great.  But the level of expectations for a campus or district in academic achievement or student behavior will never be any higher than the public will allow. This is due to the fact that the public owns the schools, finances the schools, sends their children to the schools and most importantly governs the school through a school board selected through an election. Therefore, decisions for schools are considered, made and modified politically and vary from community to community. I learned this lesson the hard way as a first year superintendent.

For example: as a high school principal, among other requirements for student attire our campus implemented and enforced a policy where flip-flop shoes were not allowed to be worn and boys had to be clean-shaven. Not a problem in that community. When I accepted the position of superintendent in a different community where most of the board members were associated with the local community college, the same policy was initially approved and then quickly reversed when parents and students complained at a school board meeting. My new board members witnessed flip-flops and mustaches every day at the local community college. One board member, after listening to her son complain about the new policy took offense to the requirements. The board didn’t see a problem and modified the student handbook two months after school had begun. It’s humbling and somewhat humiliating when a 17-year-old with a scraggly beard looks you, the superintendent, in the eye and says, “We’ll get that rule changed at the next board meeting.” And he was right! That was a hard lesson but one I’ve never forgotten. The same backlash is common from parents when too much homework is required or a more stringent grading policy is adopted. We see this all the time. So who is really lowering the bar here? It’s not the educators!

I’ve always said that parents want discipline in their child’s school until their child is disciplined. That’s when parents want the principal to cut a deal with them for their child. For me this wasn’t an issue between race, ethnic or economic class, this was ALL parents. The argument for parents who wanted to modify any level of expectation for behavior set by the school always started out the same with, “You know, he/she is really a good kid,” and ended with “I won’t tell anyone.” Trust me, the first part might be true, the second is definitely false.

Is it really logical that teachers would choose to work in a poor environment if they had the authority to change the situation? When the politicians complain about public schools, who they really should be complaining about are not the teachers and administrators but the public in general. Politicians can pander to a receptive general public about the unsubstantiated mismanagement and failure of public schools in areas they don’t represent, but the fly in the ointment has never been with educators, it’s the political barriers that prohibit or impede the improvement of schools.

As I was complaining about a parent that had accosted me over some issue at my high school, my superintendent prophetically said to me as we were monitoring students in the hallway between passing periods, “The biggest disappointments you’ll have in education will come from dealing with adults, not from dealing with kids.”

Dr. Sanders was right.


The invisible anchor that holds back the progress of high expectations of public schools is the politics infused by adults.

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Rick Perry…Our Governor…Our Woes

Here in the Lone Star State of Texas, we have a governor that has been at odds with public educators for most of his extremely long tenure as governor. Rick Perry likes to “stick-it” to public educators, principals and especially superintendents for not supporting his concept of running a public school system on a shoestring budget and for expecting money to operate more state programs concocted in the state capital of Austin.

Just one year ago, Mr. Perry fought hard to preserve a $5 billion cut (he wanted a $10 billion cut) from public education to provide a platform for his failed run for the presidency by “balancing the state budget and not raising taxes.” This occurred at a time the public schools in Texas added over 87,000 additional students, laid off thousands of teachers and classroom aides, and implemented a more difficult testing and accountability system. Talk about the perfect storm.

His latest “stick-it” to public education is his appointment of a non-public educator to oversee the operation of the nation’s second largest public education system. The governor’s choice this time around for Commissioner of Education is former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, a Tea party darling and advocate of funneling public school money to private schools (see Here) through a voucher system.

A day after the announcement of Mr. Williams, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, fresh off his defeat in the Republican primary to replace US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, has decided to march lockstep with the governor and Williams in support of sending pubic school funds to private schools through vouchers (see Here).

It’s going to be bloody during the next legislative session. Plain and simple; school choice, vouchers or scholarships are synonymous and a money grab by non-educators who want access to Texas public education dollars to do a job they are not trained, qualified, or interested in doing well.

This issue is too important for supporters of public education to remain standing on the sidelines as placid spectators. In the world of politics, SILENT SUPPORT IS NO SUPPORT AT ALL! This is a job for all school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, aides, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and any parent that received a public school education and has had their children attend public schools.

Those who value our schools must support public education by opposing public school vouchers and the politicians that advocate transferring public money to private profiteers.

Support public education by opposing public school vouchers!

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Parents Want Their Children in Safe Schools

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was quoted in a speech at Howard University, a predominately black university in Washington DC, that data in a report released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights suggests black and Hispanic students make up a disproportionate percentage of students who are disciplined with suspension or expulsion. (See Here) The report claims black students are 3.5% more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.  The report also claims that minority students (black and Hispanic) are underrepresented in calculus or gifted and talented programs.

Either Mr. Duncan has never been a teacher or administrator at the campus level or the Secretary is pandering for November votes. As a former teacher, coach, principal and superintendent, no one will ever convince me that educators have any other motivation except to educate children in a safe and orderly environment.

As a former principal, there are three areas we detest: cheerleader tryouts, enforcing the dress code, and handling classroom discipline. The notion that principals are assigning a more severe punishment to minority students is insulting. Students who receive a more harsh punishment for misbehavior are the students who are repeatedly sent to the principal’s office by the teacher. Period.  To this day I’ve never seen or been accused of interrupting a classroom, rounding up the usual black and Hispanic suspects and suspending them from school for being too ethnic (whatever that means).

So, in the eyes of the Secretary Duncan, I assume he wants principals and teachers to either overlook the misbehavior of students based on race rather than consistently enforce expectations of behavior. Or better yet, have the principal interrupt a classroom, round up the usual white suspects, and suspend them for being too non-ethnic (whatever that means). Once again, this is where I say either Mr. Duncan has never been a teacher or administrator at the campus level or the Secretary is pandering for November votes. Tying the hands of teachers and principals through threats of investigation from the Office of Civil Rights for consistently disciplining students will create the proverbial monkey see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. In this scenario, only the well behaved students will suffer having to share the classroom with students that disturb the learning environment or make the campus unsafe because teachers and principals will turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to unruly student behavior. I’ve been there as a teacher and I’ve seen it. As a teacher in the early 1990’s, I had a student sentenced to my classroom by a judge while he was awaiting his trial for murder. Is this the direction we want to take our schools? Where was the Office of Civil Rights then?

This is common sense stuff here. This is not a racial issue as Mr. Duncan has concluded; this is an economic issue which in turn is a parenting issue. It’s the elephant in the room. Students from economically depressed backgrounds not only do not come to school as academically prepared as their middle class peers and many times don’t come to school as socially prepared either. This is not new news either. This has been known and understood in all counties regardless of ethnicity since data has been collected. And one more thing, removing a persistently disruptive student from school does not create criminals for our prison system. It removes criminals from our classrooms.


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