Right and Wrong Answers on School Safety

Despite the loud voice of the National Rifle Association (NRA), scholars, experts on school safety, and teachers overwhelmingly disagree with turning schools into armed camps rather than places of nonviolent positive learning.
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Here’s a multiple-choice quiz:

Which of the following should be part ofa model school safety plan?

a) Proven evidence-based models forschool violence reduction that focus on preventing misbehavior and violence bypromoting a healthy, positive school climate.

b) Threat assessment, emphasis on positivebehavioral interventions, social and emotional learning, nonviolent conflictresolution, and community engagement including parents, students, educators,and faith and civic leaders.

c) Trained mental healthprofessionals (social workers and psychologists) and school counselors to identifyproblems early and support students and educators.

d) Keeping school doors locked afterthe start of the school day, creating a space where children are safe to learnand teachers are safe to teach.

e) Putting armed guards and moreguns in every school in America.

f) Arming teachers and principals.

g) Putting law enforcement in chargeof school safety and school discipline.

Ifyou answered e), f), and g) give yourself a failing grade. Despite the loud voice of the National RifleAssociation (NRA), scholars, experts on school safety, and teachers overwhelminglydisagree with turning schools into armed camps rather than places of nonviolentpositive learning. Schoolsafety is a non-negotiable priority. The current national debate about how bestto achieve school safety is a natural result of the horror we feel whenviolence happens at a school like the unbearable Newtown, Connecticut massacreof 20 small children and their teachers. We must do all we can to end school and community violence, but we needto make the right choices and make sure the solutions are effective and do notcreate other dangerous consequences for children.

OnMarch 28, the Advancement Project issued a report, A Real Fix: A Gun-Free Way to School Safety, that highlights whatmany people already know to be true: more guns are not the way to achieve lessviolence in schools. In fact, adding guns and increasing police presence inschools can do more harm than good to countless children -- usually children ofcolor or with special needs who are suspended, expelled, criminalized and arrestedfor nonviolent offenses -- pushing them onto a path to school failure, dropout, andthe prison pipeline.

There is no evidence that armed guards or policeofficers in schools make children safer. An armed guard at Columbine High School in1999 and a full campus police force at Virginia Tech in 2007 were unable tostop the massacres that occurred at both schools. A 2010 review of existingresearch found no evidence that the use of police to handle school disorders reducesthe occurrence of problem behavior in schools but there is evidence thatover-policing leads to a new set of problems.

The Advancement Project andothers highlight the city of Denver as a model for how to create a balancedapproach to school discipline with student and parental input and avoid the toocommon overreaction by some in the wake of school tragedies. Denver publicschools, like many Colorado schools, initially responded to the tragedy ofColumbine by more vigorously enforcing zero tolerance policies and adding morepolice, security guards, and metal detectors. Between 2000 and 2004, Denver experienced a71 percent increase in school referrals to law enforcement. The majority were for nonviolent behaviorslike the use of obscenities, disruptive appearance, and destruction ofnon-school property, not the violent and dangerous behavior zero schooldiscipline policies were designed to deter. Serious misconduct like carrying adangerous weapon to school accounted for only seven percent of the referrals.

In 2008, parents and youthsworking with then-Superintendent (now U.S. Senator) Michael Bennet, led by thegroup Padres y Jóvenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United), worked together tosuccessfully secure reforms that dramatically revised the discipline code,abandoning the post-Columbine zero tolerance discipline practices in DenverPublic Schools. Denver’s police now havea limited role in the schools and the district is making progress in reducingschool-based arrests and the racial disparities in those arrests. As the Advancement Project said in theearlier report Why Police in Schools Aren’tThe Answer: “We should learn fromthe policy choices made by the Colorado legislators and school officials—not repeatthem . . . Every dollar that goes into police, metal detectors, andsurveillance cameras is a dollar that could have been used for teachers,guidance counselors, school psychologists, and program supports for youngpeople.”

Although most of the massshooters at schools have been White, boys of color have paid the consequencesof overreaction and punitive discipline. The trend towards over-policing ismost pronounced in schools with large populations of students of color, whichare more likely to rely on zero tolerance policies and have a significantpolice presence in them. As a result,the Advancement Project points out, “it is not uncommon for the same behaviorthat triggers little to no response in many predominately White communities toresult in severe consequences in communities of color.” I am certainly for gun-and violence-free schools but there are significant dangers to young peopleattending schools that over-police and apply zero tolerance discipline policiesto nonviolent offenses.

There are better ways for providing an effective model school safetyplan, including the steps described in answers a), b), c), and d) in themultiple-choice quiz above. Successfulmodels for school safety plans emphasize relationship building among students,between students and educators, and with parents and the community at large; consistentreinforcement of positive norms through rewards or lessons; and individualizedapproaches to student discipline and intervention that seek to address rootcauses of misbehavior rather than to punish indiscriminately. Districts thatconsistently implement these kinds of practices don’t just see a reduction insuspensions and expulsions, but also improvements in measures of positive schoolclimate and reductions in behavioral problems. And when children are positivelyengaged in learning with their educators there are fewer discipline problems.

The kinds of school safety planswe should be striving for are notplans to saturate schools with more guns whose only proven beneficiaries aregun manufacturers’, sellers’, and advertisers’ bottom lines. Our nation already has too manyguns. Now is the time to insist yourelected officials vote to protect children not guns. Tell them to support what close to 90 percent ofAmericans and 74 percent of NRA members want -- universal background checks tomake our country safer. Tell them you want them to do everything they can tomake our schools safer for children but that turning them into armed camps isthe wrong answer.

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