If We Want to End School Shootings, We Have to Start Listening to Kids
Students want guidance counselors and community partnerships — not more armed officers in the building
Recently, my kids’ school district sent out notifications about new security provisions. Armed Class III police officers will be assigned to every school in the district, including lower elementary schools, with new patrol cars for each officer. “Eyes on the door” visitor management processes will be enhanced; the driver’s license of every visitor will be scanned and run through sex offender databases and against child custody orders. Security vestibules are being built at each of our 10 schools. School common areas, hallways, and identified exterior locations are being equipped with security cameras. Classroom phones are being installed, and door swipes and strobe lights are receiving upgrades.
I was the parent of a Connecticut kindergartner when Sandy Hook happened. I watched as my son engaged in active shooter drills without him knowing why. For that reason, you might expect that I’d be in full support of these measures. But I’m not.
These provisions are being implemented in a highly resourced school district, one that has no known security issues. A $115-million schools referendum, passed in the name of increased student enrollments and classroom needs, provided the financial means to strengthen security. And school shootings throughout the country have local district leaders seeking to do something, anything, to demonstrate they are serious about school safety. It doesn’t matter if there is no direct threat. Responding with the district’s checkbook is essentially trying to buy peace of mind for those who ask, “But what about the children?”
Embedded police are likely not the answer to our school security concerns.
The fear of a worst-case scenario means we need to act, act now, and act in whatever possible way available to us. Schools will ensure that Class III officers are well-trained and have the temperaments to work in a public school. They will make assurances to the community that this about safety. They will quietly note that these actions are successful—as long as such officers and security provisions never have to actually be relied on.
The true missing piece in these decisions, though, seems to be the perceptions of the very students we are trying to protect. In October, students from across the nation gathered to develop a Students’ Bill of Rights for School Safety. In that Bill of Rights, young people articulated 15 key provisions they want and need to see from their local schools. They asked that qualified counselors be provided in the schools. They called for cultural competency and de-escalation trainings. They sought federal legislation allowing for firearm restraining orders. They sought to reduce the stigma of mental health/illness issues. They demanded greater regulation of the gun industry and greater focus on responsible gun ownership. And they called for additional CDC research specifically focused on reducing gun violence.
Nowhere in the Students’ Bill of Rights for School Safety is there a call to place armed officers in school buildings. Nowhere in the Bill of Rights do they seek security vestibules or brighter strobe lights. Nowhere are they seeking reactive actions that assume the worst. Instead, students see the enormous value of proactively addressing the root issues while advocating for a safer, healthier school community.
And it’s likely the kids are onto something. Embedded police are likely not the answer to our school security concerns. Samuel Sinyangwe, data scientist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, recently noted that more than 10,000 school police officers were hired (often with federal dollars) following the Columbine school shooting in 1999. But school shootings since that time have become more frequent, not less. Yet the same measures are proposed and implemented in schools across the country—even though there’s no real evidence to suggest they’re working.
This was one of the driving reasons I decided to jump into an ultimately unsuccessful race for school board this year. I sought a seat after the district quickly budgeted $1 million annually for Class III officers, and my sixth-grade daughter insisted I had to win to “keep guns out of her school.”
Why are we acting as if this is our only option?
I quickly learned that most people in the community didn’t want to discuss the data. They didn’t want to know the answer to questions about the efficacy (or lack thereof) of guns in the schools. People want to just trust that our leaders will ensure our children are safe. That these measures make sense. They’re familiar. They believe they can ensure our school isn’t the next school shooting headline on the evening news.
For the past year, I have pressed far too many people for research on the efficacy of armed police officers in the schools. In response, I’ve received decade-old marketing PowerPoints and educated guesses. I’ve had the question deflected. I’ve been told Class III officers can improve student-police relations (which is true) and can be an effective instrument in addressing drug and vaping issues in schools (which was never the goal). But no one can adequately answer the root question: Why are we acting as if this is our only option?
So, millions of dollars a year are being spent on officers, equipment, facilities, and infrastructure enhancements. That money seems like it could have far greater impact if it were being spent on guidance counselors, school nurses, community partnerships, and actual instruction. Creating a best-case scenario for our students now seems preferable to creating barricades against some potential worst-case scenario that seems to feel increasingly inevitable.
In my local community, the course has been set and there is no likely diversion from the intended destination. My town is following the lead of all the schools before us, catering to public outcry from adults demanding action rather than using those available resources to address the concerns and reasonable recommendations of the children and teenagers at actual risk. The kids are asking for the solutions they need and want. Leaders and parents just don’t seem to be listening.