Reading, writing, arithmetic, rifles?
After Columbine, thousands of school police officers were hired to make schools safer and prevent school shootings. Yet, there is no evidence that this has prevented even one school shooting over the past 20 years. Instead, each year, tens of thousands of mainly black and brown students — nearly 70,000 in 2013-2014, for instance — have been arrested (and sometimes assaulted) at school for routine behavior infractions. And those are just the numbers from the schools that report data — not all do.
In the wake of the tragic mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, discussion about how to better protect students from gun violence has elicited many ideas.
Donald Trump has argued that we need to take steps to “harden” our schools with more hardware, metal detectors, and armed teachers. He and others who make this argument miss the point. What our students and our educators actually need are what some might call softer schools and school systems, with cultures and climates that promote empathy, civility, respect, collaboration and community.
Children do not need guns in their schools, they need relationships with adults who they know care about them. Our educators need the resource of time and trust in their abilities to develop relationships with each and every student, and particularly students, who are marginalized, traumatized, disengaged and disaffected. It is meaningful relationships with trusted adults that move students from profiles of risk to profiles of resilience and that promote student health and prevent student tragedies.
Over the past two decades, in the name of education reform, public schools and their teachers have been vilified — so much so that many are leaving the profession and many would-be young educators are opting for other careers. Some states have seen reductions in enrollment in teacher preparation programs of over 70% in the last 10 years, and almost half the teachers surveyed by the National Educational Association in 2014 responded that they had considered leaving the profession.
Armed teachers and the real possibility of dying on the job will not help the current climate and teacher shortages across the nation. Education reform’s singular, obsessive and (failed) focus on testing and metrics also shifted our attention away from the minds of young people and what they really need and equally shifted attention away from their hearts and souls. This environment does not support the well-being of teachers to support the increasingly complex needs of their young learners.
Every time there is a tragedy in our schools, a suicide or homicide, or mass homicide as in the case of Parkland, school and communities mobilize trained grief counselors who are essential after a tragic event. What we do not do is mobilize the will and resources to provide the mental health services in either our schools or communities that are necessary for preventive care and support. In Massachusetts we have some of the wealthiest and resourced school districts in the country. Many districts have nurses, social workers and psychologists in every school and even with that, schools struggle to meet the levels of anxiety, stress and complexity of need of many students.
The lack of basic resources in many schools, unrealistic expectations and immense pressure and stress creates school cultures and climates that are characterized by anxiety. This is magnified in schools that educate our students with the least advantage and opportunity, schools where mostly black and brown children attend segregated schools in communities which are often the ones most affected by gun violence
It is also most likely that more armed personnel in schools, teachers or officers will disproportionately endanger the lives of students of color. The Broward County School District, home to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School the place that has produced such a groundswell of necessary activism against gun violence, also has one of the nation’s highest racial disparities in school discipline — meaning the gap between the punishments white students and students of color receive for similar infractions. But this disparity is rampant and persistent nationwide. If students of color are already more likely to be harshly punished than their white counterparts, then more officers and more guns can only exacerbate problems, not solve them.
It should be no surprise that this post-Columbine generation of students suffers from levels of stress, depression and anxiety that are unprecedented. Every day in schools from the most affluent to the most under-resourced, educators are managing students who come to class with complex personal and educational needs and complex risk profiles — students who threaten to hurt themselves and students who threaten to hurt others.
We want to make violence and trauma the exception, not the rule. If we paint Nikolas Cruz as a sociopathic monster and blame individual failures of the particular child welfare worker, the school, the mental health counselors, the students, the Florida FBI, the school resource officer, the superintendent, it makes us feel safer, like this cannot happen in anytown USA.
But it can and unfortunately will. The system failed Nikolas Cruz and the system failed all the students and adults who lost their lives at his hands. Our systems will continue to fail young men like Nikolas Cruz who themselves carry lives of loss and trauma.
We do not provide adequate wraparound supports, which are an essential mechanism for providing integrated, family-centered and strengths-based preventative services for students and families with complex needs, or adequate funding for child welfare or mental health services. We do not have adequate universal health care and universal coverage and parity for mental health services.
Sadly, there is probably a Nikolas Cruz in every school system in America, a young man with significant trauma and loss who is alienated, disengaged and angry. Sadly, our government and politicians have failed to limit access to military grade weaponry, which allows young men like Cruz easy access to this arsenal.
If more guns could solve this problem, Florida and Florida’s schools would be the safest in the nation — it’s a state where, according to its Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, nearly 2 million people are permitted to carry concealed weapons. There have been three mass shootings, in which four or more people have been killed in a single incident, in Florida since 2016. Recently, Florida state senator Dennis Baxley noted that he does not see “any interest in the Florida Senate to change gun control and access. We’re pretty comfortable that freedom works.” Until we stop fetishizing guns in the name of freedom, our children and citizens will continue to be victims of mass shootings.
Platitudes and prayers are not going to fix this. Metal detectors and teachers with guns are not going to fix this. It is time to have a real national conversation on the health and well-being of our children and the health and well-being of our schools. There is no quick fix but there is hope. The astute and intelligent voices of our young people are heartening. Maybe this will be the time to take back our schools and communities from the gun lobby. Maybe this will be the time for a real conversation about what our children and educators need in their schools. Who better to lead that conversation for a real school reform movement and systems change than our young student activists?