In light of the tragic school shooting in Connecticut that killed twenty school children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there has been a loud call to increase the number of armed security in our schools. On Wednesday, January 16, 2013, Obama forwarded a plan that would provide incentives for schools to hire school “resource officers,” an ambiguous term referring to police forces, to protect the students. However, proposals to increase the presence of law enforcement in schools are reckless and ineffective. The presence of armed guards negatively impacts students, particularly students of color, by perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline. Rather than increasing gun power, federal and state dollars should go toward more effective measures, such as conflict resolution classes.
Here in D.C., we already have the in-depth background checks, ban on assault weapons, and round limitations as proposed by the President. However, Mayor Vincent Gray recently stated that he wants to address school violence by putting guns in schools. According to The Examiner, Gray said that he is considering a plan to install armed guards in all of the city’s 125 public schools. Mayor Gray observed, “I think it it’s a way of further protecting our students, I’m open for that discussion.” Before hopping on the bandwagon to arm school personnel, the mayor would be well-advised to examine how effective these gun policies are in actuality.
Along with the Lawyers’ Committee, organizations such as the Advancement Project and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund make the case that increasing the presence of law enforcement in our schools fosters a prison-like environment that criminalizes students – particularly young people of color – for trivial behaviors and minor infractions. According to their joint issue brief entitled, “Police in Schools are not the Answer to the Newtown Shooting,” increased security measures at school, such as metal detectors, surveillance cameras, entry check points, and police presence, are not only unlikely to prevent all school-related shootings, but also disproportionately affects children of color, disabilities, LBTQ, and non-gender conforming students.
Further research proves that the hostile environment created by armed police does not make schools safer; rather, it breeds an environment of distrust. Indeed, the American Psychological Association and other research organizations have shown that police-enforced “zero tolerance” discipline policies that employ suspensions, expulsions, citations, and even arrests, do not increase graduation rates nor make students feel safer. Instead, they further increase racial disparity in school exclusion and educational outcomes.
Developing strong relationships between students, parents, and staff is a more effective method of making schools safer than increased security measures. Creating truly safe schools, rather than creating the appearance of safe schools with armed guards, means fostering connectedness and communication. Federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, U.S. Secret Service, and others have shown us that the best way to prevent many acts of violence targeted at schools is by “maintaining close communication and trust with students and others in the community.” Xiomara Vazquez, a New York City high school student and member of the organizations Sistas and Brothas United and the Dignity Schools Campaign suggests that the government “should invest in after-school programs, conflict resolution, peer mediation, safety plans and processes for the entire school instead of training and placing armed guards.” By doing so, the nation’s resources could go towards professionals actually trained to help students’ problems, promoting positive behavior and social and emotional learning.
Schools should take a proactive – rather than reactive – role in preventing violence by teaching techniques to deal with conflicts. Peer mediation, for example, has been successfully implemented throughout the country and could be incorporated into school curriculum. This requires one or two neutral parties – either students, faculty members, or both – to act as mediators who lead the process of reaching resolution, while the conflicting parties agree to a solution. Peer mediation requires all participants to listen, focus on interests, not positions, think critically, and respect one another while striving towards a compromised positive outcome. In doing so, students are equipped with the ability to handle various combative situations, with different conflict styles, and from all perspectives. Learning to work with others to find win-win solutions is a life-long skill that will benefit the students in every aspect of life.
As the nation mourns the loss of innocent lives in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, we should be mindful that proposed legislation and policies address the issue of gun violence and gun homicide in our country thoughtfully and effectively and avoid knee-jerk reactions such as placing more officers in schools. Such measures may provide the appearance of safety but do little to actually make our schools and country safer from gun violence. Increasing the presence of police officers or armed guards in our schools has not been shown to make them safer; rather, police presence exacerbates the school-to-prison pipeline. The Lawyers’ Committee commends actions that tackle gun violence broadly and effectively so that our classrooms, homes, and communities are a little safer than before.