Written by Jason Langberg
Would you want armed former cops and soldiers patrolling your office? Your supermarket? Your place of worship? I wouldn’t. So why are policymakers putting them in schools? Can’t we all agree that schools should be supportive, loving, peaceful environments, and not violent, hostile, and intimidating places? Apparently not.
The North Carolina General Assembly has been a mainstay in national news the last few months for its regressive and hateful policymaking. The New York Times Editorial Board published a piece titled, “The Decline of North Carolina.” The Washington Post Editorial Board wrote an op-ed titled, “North Carolina’s Abortion Law Sham.” MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry, Chris Hayes, and Rachel Maddow (who said North Carolina is like “Conservatives Gone Wild”) have been providing regular coverage of the legislature’s suppression of voting and abortion rights. Last week, an Education Week blogger called the General Assembly “the most backward legislature in America” and an article appeared in Mother Jones titled, “Why North Carolina’s Voter ID Bill Might be the Nation’s Worst.” Diane Ravitch has provided her blog readers with regular coverage of the harm being done to public education in North Carolina. The Nation’s Ari Berman called North Carolina “the new Wisconsin” in his coverage of the state’s Moral Monday protests.
However, absent from the media coverage of North Carolina, and lost amidst the General Assembly’s recent efforts to attack women, restrict voting, dismantle public education, make the rich richer and poor poorer, and initiate other measures from the American Legislative Exchange Council’s vile playbook, is a section buried deep (pages 77-78) in the recently ratified state budget that would allow armed militias to roam schools and arrest students.
The provision allows school districts to enter into agreements with sheriff’s departments and/or police departments that would provide former law enforcement officers and/or former military police officers to roam school hallways. The legislation requires the “volunteer school safety resource officers” to be trained in the social and cognitive development of children, but does not require training in their proper roles, students with disabilities, students’ rights, supporting students in positive ways, or cultural competency. Additionally, the bill mandates that neither a law enforcement agency nor a school district can be held liable for any “good-faith action” taken by an officer. Also, the bill does not prohibit the volunteers from carrying pepper spray, TASERs, and guns; presumably, volunteers will be armed. Perhaps worst of all, the provision gives the officers the power to arrest without any restrictions on such power (e.g., no arrests for minor misbehavior or manifestations of students’ disabilities). Notably, the state budget also provides grants for more paid law enforcement officers to patrol public schools on a full-time basis (misleadingly called “school resource officers”).
The provision is consistent with bipartisan calls by federal, state, and local policymakers for more cops and guns in schools following the tragedy in Newton, Connecticut. They saw dead children and teachers as an opportunity to leverage fears, pander to special interests (e.g., the NRA), and score cheap political points by passing school “safety” measures that have failed since first being implemented on a large scale after Columbine. Instead of addressing the root causes of school violence and working to keep guns out of schools, policymakers added more armed individuals to patrol hallways. Education Week published an analysis of school safety legislation since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As of June 17th, state legislators had introduced 56 bills easing gun restrictions in schools, 65 bills to arm school employees, 82 bills dealing with police in schools.
The provision in the North Carolina budget and similar school “safety” legislation are also consistent with:
- A vigilante mob mentality that has given us the Ku Klux Klan, minutemen hunting immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border, and the murder of Trayvon Martin;
- A mentality that some youth are disposable that has given us 23% of children (16,387,000) living in poverty and 45% of children (32,730,000 total) living in low-income families, school closings, and the school-to-prison pipeline;
- An obsession with control and conformity that has given us high-stakes testing, scripted curricula, zero tolerance, and schools that resemble prisons;
- A pervasive culture of violence that has given us corporal punishment, the death penalty, “War on Terror,” lethal drone strikes, perpetual wars, and stand your ground laws;
- Efforts to undermine public education and push families toward for-profit education that have given us vouchers, unregulated and for profit charter schools, and resource starvation; and
- Systemic racism that has given us voter ID laws, the war on drugs, stop and frisk, mass incarceration, and the “New Jim Crow.”
History and research tell us that unleashing armed cops and soldiers in schools will disproportionately impact students of color and result in more students unnecessarily in the juvenile and criminal injustice systems, more undermining of teachers’ and administrators’ authority, and more damage to learning environments. Even if law enforcement officers in schools were benevolently conceived as a means of keeping intruders out of schools and intervening when violence occurs, they are typically used as yet another developmentally inappropriate way of punishing misbehaving students who need understanding and positive support.
This is not an abstract fringe issue. It’s about how we want our public schools to look and feel – child-friendly and caring or hostile and punitive. It’s about refusing to sort youth into potential perpetrators and potential victims. It’s about terrorism against young people. Sadly, school resource officers, who hardly existed two decades ago, already seem normal to most young people. We must refuse to start down a path that will soon make armed militias in schools feel like commonplace.
Since policymakers have repeatedly ignored the pleas and research from education and juvenile justice advocates, it’s up to school districts to stay true to their missions and reject more (paid or volunteer) cops in schools. And it’s up to all of us to demand investments in proven measures of ensuring school safety, such as: small schools and classes; Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports; ample support staff (e.g., teacher assistants, counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, and mentors); student support teams; restorative justice, social and emotional learning, and bullying prevention programs. Let’s stand up and protect our students and schools, before it’s too late.
Jason Langberg is an education and juvenile justice advocate in North Carolina.