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In Wake of School Shooting, Students and Advocates Say Armed Guards Are Not the Answer

“A school full of guns is a tragedy waiting to happen.”

In the months following the shooting in Parkland, 23 state legislatures have moved to pass legislation to increase the number of law enforcement officers in schools, Politico recently reported

And yet, this is the last thing students of color need to be safer, according to students and advocates who spoke at the Federal Commission on School Safety Listening Session last week. The listening session was an open public forum that allowed citizens from around the country to offer their advice for making schools safer in five-minute statements. 

“Though tragic and heart-wrenching for all, school shootings are rare, and school violence overall has shown a decline over several decades,” said Chelsea Crittle, a fourth-year doctoral student at Tufts University, in the eight-hour listening session. 

“What has increased is the prevalence of the school-to-prison pipeline and the criminalization of our schools, which negatively impacts the life outcomes of Black and Latinx students.”

Recent data back up her argument. The Washington Post reported that school shootings have gone down since the 1990s; meanwhile, a civil rights data collection from the U.S. Department of Education details how racial disparities in student discipline have continued to grow in recent years.

For instance, the overrepresentation of Black students in referrals to law enforcement and school-related arrests grew from 11 percent to 16 percent from 2013-2014 to 2015-2016. 

“We are running the risk of having schools resemble criminal justice systems rather than the safe and healthy environment that we’re all striving towards,” Crittle said. “If the goal is to foster a safer environment for all students, the commission should consider the impact of race when deciding on a solution.” 

At Risk of “Having Schools Resemble Criminal Justice Systems” 

Amina Henderson-Redwan, 20, also urged the commission not to increase armed guards in schools. As an African-American Palestinian woman who grew up on the south side of Chicago, she’s lost friends and family to gun violence since she was nine years old. Now an advocate for Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), she has been working on the ground to curb gun violence in schools. 

“Whenever these tragedies happen—like Columbine, like Sandy Hook—our country’s response has typically been the hardening of schools. But for students like us, this is not what safety means,” she said. 

After Columbine, the numbers of School Resource Officers (SROs) increased by nearly a third from 1997 to 2000, Vox reported. While the goal was to prevent mass shootings like the one in Columbine, it resulted in thousands more students getting arrested.

“Safety does not mean more police in schools, more metal detectors, and armed teachers,” Henderson-Redwan continued. “Safety means getting to the root causes of a student’s misbehavior. It means more conflict resolution, alternatives to arrest, and supporting students when their mental and behavioral health is needed.”

“Now We Will Use Our Voice”

Though U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the commission would not focus specifically on gun laws, that’s exactly what two Montgomery County, Maryland graduating high school seniors, Michael Yin and Alessia Modjarrad, said needs to change.

“Politicians have come up with some good ideas, but if we really want to end these tragedies, we need to listen to the people closest to the school system,” Yin said. “One idea that is a little worrying though is arming school staff.”

Yin said there is a “limited role” for school resource officers, but that schools should not force staff to be guards or turn schools into prisons. “A school full of guns is a tragedy waiting to happen,” he said.

Modjarrad listed the changes she and other students want to see: universal background checks, bans on high capacity magazines, mental healthcare reform, and lifting the Dickey Amendment, a 1996 amendment that critics say prevents the CDC from being able to research gun violence. 

Modjarrad said that, ultimately, real policy change requires legislators to amplify student voice. 

“We the students experience the American school system every day,” she said. “We used to sit in classrooms waiting for something to be done. Now we will use our voice, and it’s time for the commission to listen.”