The conversation regarding school safety cannot start and stop with guns and shootings.
Since 2018 began, at least 8 school shootings have occurred in the US involving injury or death. In the days since the most recent widely publicized shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, several conversations have erupted regarding U.S. school safety.
Similar to other shootings, gun control has re-emerged in the mainstream discourse. As well, there are discussions regarding arming teachers and increasing militarization of U.S. public schools. For example, in Broward County, Florida where the shooting took place, the police have reportedly stated that sheriff’s deputies will carry rifles on school grounds going forward. But amidst the growing discourse surrounding violence and guns, one particular discussion about school safety has been erased: that US students have been under threat and are under threat everyday.
Understandably it is a worrisome and frightening and grave situation when a school shooting occurs, but “school safety” is more than just about school shootings. And this hyperfocus on the state of US schools only when widely publicized events happen, obscures that schools have been unsafe and that teachers and students are constantly threatened and in dangerous situations.
In particular, the conversation on increasing police presence in schools or further incorporating metal detectors and other scanners or arming teachers, ignores that many schools are already militarized and policed in this way. Many schools already have policies in place for metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs, especially among schools with a greater concentration poor students and students of color. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that up to 24% of U.S. schools have random drug-sniffs by dogs and almost 9% of high schools have random metal detector scans.
As well, around 30% of US public schools indicated they employ law enforcement officials often known as “school resource officers” (SROs) or “school law enforcement officers” (SLEOs). However, the actual number of officers nationwide is unknown, because these school police officers are not required to register with a national database. Furthermore, schools in Missouri already have armed teachers and a school in Indiana has cameras connected to the sheriff’s department.
But research indicates that there is really not enough data that conclusively demonstrates the effectiveness of measures like metal detectors in schools. As well, there is little relationship between school police officers and crime rates. In fact the police have been known to actually commit violence against students and not protect them, especially against students of color. In fact, school police officers tend to be more prevalent in schools as the percentage of non-white students increases and students of color are 20-40% more likely to attend a school with a school police officer but without a guidance counselor. And research has shown that school police officers may actual feed into the school-to-prison pipeline, increasing the likelihood of children referred to the criminal legal system. Black students in particular are more likely to be criminalized by school policies and school police officers, being suspended between two and three times more than any other race/ethnic group.
Students are also criminalized under school policies that target disability with disabled students over two times more likely suspended than abled students. As well, disabled students make up a quarter of arrests/law enforcement referrals despite only being 12% of the student population and data show that up to 85% of incarcerated youth have a disability that would qualify for individualized education classes, and are disproportionately disabled youth of color.
Queer and trans youth are also criminalized, with queer and trans youth comprising 13-15% of the youth criminal system population despite on being 5-7% of the national youth population, with over 60% of those youth Black and Latinx. Trans students in particular have been targeted and criminalized by anti-trans bathroom policies even among their teachers as about 49% of US educators do not support trans bathroom use. And queer and trans youth like other marginalized students, also face violence and harassment from their peers with 63.5% of queer and trans youth indicating they are unsafe at school.
And beyond school and state policies and policing that target marginalized students, even the very places of learning meant to provide a safe and stable environment are a threat to students. The very buildings that students enter and stay in everyday are dangerous as noted by The American Society of Civil Engineers which rated US schools a “D+” on the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card and indicated that over 53% of schools must improve infrastructure to be rated “good”.
As well, between 2012 and 2015 a sample of 350 schools representing nearly 20% of national water systems exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) action levels for lead in water while over 90,000 schools are not even under the regulation of water safety legislation. And last month students in 60 Baltimore schools, nearly one-third of the city school district, had to endure classes in 20°F and potential snowstorm conditions without heating during schools hours.
And some students are in danger of not having a school at all like students in Chicago’s South Side region facing school closures of all 4 schools in the Englewood area, bolstered by support from a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) contractor, who contracted $157,000 to do work that was mainly elsewhere in the city. Meanwhile, the city of Chicago is planning to open a $95 million police academy and placed a bid to host the next US headquarters of online shopping corporation Amazon which included a $2.25 billion package in tax and other incentives.
This plan by Chicago Public Schools is not its first mass school closing, as CPS had previously closed 47 schools in 2013 with receiving schools getting only one-tenth of the overall proposed transition budget. And this widespread closure of schools and displacement of students is a threat to their well-being and their education. The very conditions that lead schools to be vulnerable to closure are a threat to students. Broken, failing infrastructure is a threat to students. Hypothermia is a threat to students. Lead poisoning is a threat to students. And school policies that target and criminalize marginalized students are a threat to students.
All these and more are threats faced by students in US schools daily. And the conditions are so dire, teachers too are threatened by state policies and laws like in West Virginia that leave them with insufficient pay and unable to pay for healthcare all while teachers are spending hundreds of dollars out of pocket for school supplies for their classrooms.
In truth, students and teachers in the U.S. education system are bombarded by threats everyday and several of them don’t involve guns. Without a doubt, a school shooting is a critical and grave issue. School shootings must be stopped. But it is by no means the only threat to the safety of students, teachers, and schools. The conversation regarding school safety cannot start and stop with guns and shootings. And in order to truly protect students, teachers, and education, each and every threat to their safety must be confronted and eradicated.