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Op-Ed: Why Armed Guards Would Be Bad for Schools

school lockers
By: Donna Lieberman Executive Director

In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, we should listen to the students and not to the politicians.

The students are the ones who watched as 14 of their fellow classmates and three staff members were gunned down by a person wielding a weapon of war. And they are the ones who are pointing the way forward by recognizing that we need fewer, not more, guns in schools.

But instead of heeding the children’s cries of “never again,” some politicians in Albany are proposing to put more guns and more police in schools – policies that would only put children at greater risk.

State Sen. Simcha Felder, for example, reiterated his yearslong call to place armed police officers in New York schools in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

New York must reject these types of policies.

As our nation grapples with the unspeakable horror of Parkland, and how to keep our children safe in school, it is time we actually listened to our children about what would make them feel safer.

Ever since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, the federal government and school districts across the country have responded with a massive infusion of police and law enforcement tactics in schools, supplemented by zero tolerance suspension policies that push students out of schools for even minor misbehavior. At the same time, we have seen an unprecedented proliferation of automatic weapons in the hands of civilians.

These policies have failed our children. As more – and more horrific – school shootings keep occurring, it is undeniable that these policies have failed to protect students from mass murder. And they have taken an enormous toll on students, particularly black and Latino children – as they are thrust into the criminal justice system, with court dates and jail sentences for “disorderly conduct” instead of a trip to the principal’s office. The impact of a law enforcement approach to school discipline is so harmful that these policies have been called the school-to-prison pipeline.

In New York City, under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the infusion of school safety officers, who answered to the NYPD instead of school principals, led to a number of violent incidents. The NYCLU sued in 2010 on behalf of six students who were abused by school safety officers. One 13-year-old middle schooler required medical attention after she was handcuffed, tripped, forcefully thrown down and pinned to the ground by a school safety officer. Fourteen-year-old Destiny Bruno was punched in the head repeatedly, placed in a headlock, handcuffed, arrested and forced to spend the night in a juvenile detention center.

Instead of more police and more guns that would create enormous fear, trauma and risk of injury or death, we need safety and disciplinary practices that will actually support and protect children from harm. That means age-appropriate interventions that will change negative behavior rather than simply punishing it.

As our nation grapples with the unspeakable horror of Parkland, and how to keep our children safe in school, it is time we actually listened to our children about what would make them feel safer.

That’s what Mayor Bill de Blasio did. At a town hall earlier this month, students told the mayor they feel watched instead of protected by school safety officers; criminalized, not respected, by metal detectors in school; and discriminated against by the overpolicing of students of color.

They also called for more school counselors and mental health professionals to help students learn how to resolve conflicts peacefully and to support the school community.

I couldn’t agree more.

Data from New York City show that restorative practices like peer-mediation correlate with reduced school violence. Indeed, while school arrests and suspensions have declined significantly under the de Blasio administration, city schools are safer now than they have been in more than a decade. And educators report to us that when students trust the adults around them, they reach out for help to prevent problems before they start.

Students across the country and around New York walked out of school on Wednesday to call for gun restrictions that would help prevent mass shootings like the one in Parkland. They are right: semi-automatic weapons have no place in our schools, or our country.

Students know that the response to Parkland must be different. They have told us we cannot settle for the easy solutions of more guns, more police and more metal detectors in our schools.

We should listen to them.

This piece originally appeared as an op-ed in City & State on March 15, 2018

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