BY VICTORIA MIDDLETON
Whether or not we have school-age children, we all shared in the grief after the most recent school shooting in Connecticut. We all share the deep concern that we must keep our young people safe.
At the same time, we need to be cautious about reaching for a “quick fix” that may do more harm than good.
Following violent incidents in the past, officials around the country have rushed to put police in schools, with unintended and negative consequences. Indeed, school-based police most often deal not with dangerous acts but with relatively minor misbehaviors that could safely be handled by educators. In addition, they often lack training in working with young people.
The use of police in schools has a particularly damaging impact on young people of color, who are disproportionately referred to law enforcement. This misguided model of school security has serious negative implications for young people, impacting not only their immediate lives but also their futures by increasing the odds that they will drop out and experience future criminal justice involvement.
In recent years, elementary school students have been handcuffed and arrested for tantrums and other behavior that may be disruptive but is certainly not criminal.
In April of last year, a 6-year old girl in Milledgeville, Ga., was handcuffed, driven to a police station and arrested, mirroring a similar incident in Florida a few years earlier. This kind of unnecessary and extreme encounter with the criminal justice system could be a young child’s first step on the problematic “school to prison” pathway. And it will not make schools safer.
Keeping students safe depends on creating positive school climates. These are created by treating students with respect, forging positive (not adversarial) relationships between students and authority figures, investing in resources to support struggling students, and directing resources to counseling and positive behavior support interventions — not criminalizing minor misbehavior.
Despite the horror we feel when children are attacked, the fact is that schools remain among the safest places for youth. According to the report “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2011,” “The percentage of youth homicides occurring at school remained at less than 2 percent of the total number of youth homicides over all available survey years.” In addition, between 1992 and 2010, victimization rates for students ages 12-18 declined both at and away from school. (http://nces.ed.gov/programs/crimeindicators/crimeindicators2011/key.asp)
Immediately after the Newtown tragedy, a national group of professionals who are tasked with students’ welfare cautioned against turning our schools into garrisons.
The Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence, which includes the National Association of School Resource Officers, as well as the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of State Boards of Education and the National Association of School Psychologists, urged that “inclinations to intensify security in schools should be reconsidered. We cannot and should not turn our schools into fortresses … Although it may be logical to control public entrances to a school, reliance on metal detectors, security cameras, guards, and entry check points is unlikely to provide protection against all school-related shootings, including the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.” (http://curry.virginia.edu/articles/sandyhookshooting)
Instead of hastening to put police officers in schools without requiring specialized training, without defining their role in school discipline, and without formalizing agreements about the scope of their authority in relation to teachers and administrators, we should think through school safety in a comprehensive way.
If we really want to protect our children, we owe this to them.
Victoria Middleton is executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina.