Why Policy Alone Won’t End Gun Violence In America’s Schools

My 17 year old daughter attends high school in Oakland, California and is a new driver. I get a bit nervous every time she gets in the car to drive somewhere, like this morning when she drove to school and join millions of other students around the country to raise their voices and demand sensible gun control in our country. My daughter is incredibly bright, full of ideas, and ready to make her light shine in the world. Like millions of other students, she is fed up with how our politicians find every excuse to making our schools and neighborhoods safer. While I’m nervous about her driving, I am also sometimes nervous about her safety at school..

Despite the waves of student protests within the last month calling for gun control, policy makers have chosen to blame the Obama Administration’s school discipline policy as the cause of the horrific event at Stoneman Douglass High School. Recently, Sen. Marco Rubio announced a school discipline policy on the Senate floor that he claims could have prevented Nikolas Cruz’s killing rampage that left 17 dead. For quite some time, conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh have lambasted school discipline policies that they claim are too lenient on dangerous students like Cruz. Recently, President Trump jumped on the misguided bandwagon. Pointing blame at Obama era policies, Trump has directed Secretary of Education Besty DeVos to lead a commission on safety that will examine the repeal of the Obama administration’s Rethink School Discipline guidelines.

Rethink School Discipline was launched as part of President Obama’s My Brothers’ Keeper Initiative, which aimed to address disparities in suspensions and harsh school discipline of boys and young men of color. Guidelines from Rethinking School Discipline have been found to make schools safer and keep kids out of juvenile hall. Research shows that by providing alternatives to suspension, such as use of restorative justice practices, and attending to the holistic needs of students like healing from trauma can improve school climate. Improvements in school climate reduce violence and acting out and enhance learning. These findings are particularly important because they shatter the myth that the best way to make schools safer and more conducive to learning is to punish students who misbehave and suspend them from school. But, harsh punishment does not addressing underlying social emotional issues. Instead, it pushes children away, while at the same time disproportionally effecting youth of color.

Despite Trump’s call to reexamine school discipline practices, policy alone will never end gun violence in America’s schools, and here’s why. Even if policy changed to limit access to guns, the underlying social emotional issues that contribute to violence remain entact.

Violence in America’s schools is not simply a failure of policy and lack of effective legislation; it is the result of a breakdown in hope among America’s youth. The truth is, America’s youth are hurting, yet no one is listening!

According to the Center for Disease control, suicide for youth ages 15–24 has been on a steady increase for at least a decade, with the highest rate consistently occurring for white youth. Similarly, in 2016 the Gallup Student Poll found that young people have become less optimistic about their outlook on life. Young people are also more depressed than they were a generation ago. Research shows that between 2005 and 2014, the percentage of teens who reported having a major depressive episode in the past year increased from 8.7 percent to 11.3 percent. These trends are generally worse for low-income students of color.

Restoring hope among high school students requires a conversation that moves us beyond sound bites and quick policy fixes. Policies to arm teachers or school counselors will do nothing to address bullying and feelings of isolation which are common among school shooters. Nor will they allow students to express what they are really feeling when they come to school.

High school students need more than policy change to stay safe in schools.

Here’s what we can do for them.

We need to listen more closely to what young people have to say. Young people offer insight and solutions to problems that adults don’t see simply because they ask different questions. The fact that millions of young people are voicing their opinion about gun control means that young people do engage in politics when the issues hit home.

We need to help them heal. That means teachers must make their classrooms places that feel safe for kids to share what’s on their minds and in hearts. When young people feel supported, they can talk about bad things that are happening to them, and heal from individual and community trauma they have experienced.

We need to provide opportunities for schools to foster empathy and create a greater sense of belonging as if our lives depended on it. This means encouraging conversations among students across racial, political, and religious differences. When we share our stories and find similarities despite our differences, we build empathy and strengthen the connections that hold us together.

In times like these, the question isn’t, “what should we do about violence in schools?” Rather, the question should be, “who should we become in our efforts to create safety for our youth?” When we really listen to young people, it forces us to become a better society. I think that is the most important lesson my daughter has taught me. Simply listening to her without judgement makes me a better father. It’s tough sometimes, but some of our greatest lessons are also difficult. I hope that our country is ready to listen and learn from our youth.

Dr. Shawn Ginwright is Associate Professor of Education, and African American Studies at San Francisco State University and the author of Hope and Healing in Urban Education: How Activists are Reclaiming Matters of the Heart.