Schools and Our Misdirected Security Dollars

The title of this post is the title of an excellent op-ed by my colleagues and friends, Professor Barbara Fedders of University of North Carolina School of Law and Jason Langberg, staff attorney and director of the Push Out Prevention Project at Advocates for Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina.

It was originally published on January 10, 2013, in the News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.):

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School leaves us speechless and stunned. With the rest of the country, we mourn the loss of life, the shattering of families, the destruction of a nurturing school community. All of us struggle to find ways to explain an event like this to our children and to make sense of it for ourselves. It seems beyond words.

The depth of pain caused by this shooting has catalyzed action in ways that the epidemic of gun violence in this country has previously been unable to do. Some elected officials are rethinking their staunch opposition to gun control. Grassroots activists are mobilizing against the NRA. Mental health advocates are demanding greater access to treatment.

The courage and heroism of the teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook have made Americans across the political spectrum understand and appreciate that teaching is, at its core, an act of great love. The initial outpouring of rage and howling grief has given way to thoughtful, nuanced proposals for increasing safety and connectedness at school.

And then there are the calls for more guns and policing.

NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre made headlines by advocating armed guards in every school, arguing that the only way to stop a shooter is by giving a “good guy” a gun. Unfortunately, his knee-jerk and overly simplistic proposal has made its way into mainstream political discourse. Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett and some elected officials have proposed arming school personnel. Sen. Barbara Boxer called for governors to have the ability to use National Guard troops at schools. Around the country, school administrators are instituting or adding to existing school police forces.

 Yet, the research suggests that more guns and policing don’t make schools safer. We have, after all, been here before. On the heels of the Columbine High School massacre (and “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s and 1990s), the federal government, state legislatures and local school districts adopted “zero tolerance” policies and rapidly increased deployment of law enforcement officers in schools.

The result was damage to educational environments and millions more students being pushed out of schools – through soaring rates of suspension, dropouts and school-based arrests and court referrals – and into the juvenile and criminal systems.

Moreover, students of color, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities were disproportionately the victims of misguided reactions to high-profile school shootings. And the huge increase in law enforcement presence in schools hasn’t been definitively linked to improvements in school safety or student well-being.

So, what do we do instead? We use data and research to make sound, well-reasoned decisions. Schools, along with parents and communities, can help build a culture of nonviolence and develop law-abiding citizens. Traditional law enforcement practices and punitive discipline won’t build peaceful schools, and as reactionary measures, they certainly won’t achieve the paramount goal of preventing violence.

Research indicates that the most effective way to prevent school violence is to use a balanced approach of developing positive cultures and using peace-building activities and effective interventions.

First, schools should be small, trusting, loving, nurturing, supportive communities, with caring, compassionate and adequately supported staff who work to build partnerships with families. Second, schools should have programs that teach conflict resolution, bullying prevention, social and emotional learning, and restorative justice practices. Third, students who engage in serious misbehavior or show a propensity for violence should be treated with understanding and benevolence, and rehabilitated through a well-coordinated, school-based and community-based continuum of services, such as support groups, social services, mental health services, mentoring, and drug and alcohol counseling.

These measures not only help keep young people in school but also help produce adults with better self-regulation and mental health.

As North Carolina swears in a new governor and students across the state have returned to school from their holiday break, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can expand failed school security measures that waste billions of taxpayer dollars on addressing violence once it’s already occurred. We can choose to repeat history and continue to feed the school-to-prison pipeline.

Or we can respond to the horrifying events in Newtown in positive ways. This could be the moment we decide enough is enough – it’s finally time for a culture shift, and we’re going to begin in schools. Instead of treating symptoms, we can treat the problems. We can provide schools with the supports and resources they need to adopt measures that actually make schools safer and develop peaceful citizens.

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  1. Pingback: Schools and Our Misdirected Security Dollars | Sacramento Juvenile Attorney- Law Office of Mark S. Mayfield