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Arming Teachers And Expelling Students Is Not The Answer To School Shootings, And It's Dangerous

Arming Teachers And Expelling Students Is Not The Answer To School Shootings, And It's Dangerous

In response to the rash of school shootings in the United States, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is now considering allowing states to use federal funds to put guns in schools, training and arming marshals and teachers.

The Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (under Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act) are intended to expand and improve student learning, not to buy guns. They are used by school districts for implementing school-based social, emotional, and mental health services and support as well as dropout prevention programs. They are used to help ensure that students from low-income families have access to technology as well as to advanced coursework, and college and career counseling. In short, these funds are intended to help to create schools where all students are seen, supported, and valued.

Siphoning off those funds to put guns in schools won’t make students safer and it won’t improve academic achievement. In fact, in school shooting incidents, 95 percent of attackers were current students at the school and of those, 71 percent said that they felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to taking action. By contrast, in schools that focus on social-emotional learning and offer mental health supports, evidence shows that students feel and are safer, interpersonal relationships are stronger, bullying and fighting are reduced, and achievement and graduation rates are higher. Where students are supported and taught to be caring and responsible, these students can be helped, protected, and redirected to productive futures.

This blog from earlier this year describes why arming teachers instead of creating more supportive school environments is the wrong approach.

This blog was originally posted in Forbes.

Six months into 2018 there have already been 23 school shootings, the most recent at Noblesville West Middle School in Indiana and Santa Fe High School in Texas. Policymakers, educators, advocates, parents, and students themselves are looking for solutions to stop the violence. The most high profile of these are the brave students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who have been vocal and visible in their calls to end gun violence.

It is quite possible that the shooting at Douglas, as well as those at the 22 other schools where students were terrorized, injured and killed, was a preventable tragedy. Prevention might have come in the form of gun control laws, a more appropriate police response to reported dangerous and threatening behavior from a former student, or more accessible mental health services coupled with stronger relationships between Nikolas Cruz and caring adults in the school.

The good news is that the Trump Administration has created a Federal Commission on School Safety to address this issue. The bad news is that Education Secretary DeVos has already asserted that the Commission will not address the role of guns in gun violence, and the Administration has suggested eliminating the Obama-era guidance on school discipline, a move that would not have prevented this or any other shooting. That guidance, which is a non-binding resource, was created to help schools reduce exclusionary discipline strategies like suspension and expulsion—which alienate students and are often applied in discriminatory ways—and to support initiatives that help students develop social and emotional skills and receive mental health supports, so they can understand and manage their feelings  (including anger, rejection and frustration), and learn how to resolve conflicts peaceably.

These social-emotional learning practices have been found in hundreds of studies to reduce negative behavior and violence in schools, making schools safer while also increasing academic achievement. The guidance builds on what we know about how to increase school safety through “conflict resolution, restorative practices, counseling and structured systems of positive interventions.” The guidance also provides research-based resources to address students’ mental health needs, as well as proven practices that make students feel more connected to school and part of a community, so they are less likely to engage in negative and harmful behavior.

Indeed, school exclusion, without these supports, can exacerbate a bad situation. In the Parkland case, the fact that Nikolas Cruz had been expelled from school may have contributed to driving an angry young man who felt isolated to take out his frustration and anger by killing students and staff at his former school. In theory, zero-tolerance policies deter students from violent or illegal behavior because the punishment for such a violation is harsh and certain. However, research shows that such policies ultimately increase illegal behavior and have negative effects on student academic achievement, attainment, welfare, and school culture.

The fact that Nikolas Cruz had been expelled from school may have contributed to driving an angry young man who felt isolated to take out his frustration and anger by killing students and staff at his former school.

Numerous studies have suggested an association  between exclusionary discipline  practices and an array of serious educational, economic and social problems, including school avoidance and diminished educational engagement; decreased academic achievement; increased behavior problems; increased likelihood of dropping out; substance abuse; and involvement with juvenile justice systems. All of these problems are costly to the victims and to our society. They drive up the public costs associated with the aftermath of violence, substance abuse counseling, unemployment or underemployment, policing and the justice system, and much, much more.

Repealing the voluntary guidance will not prevent similar shootings at other schools. What it will likely do, however, is allow for the continuation of school discipline practices that undermine school safety and student success, particularly for students of color and students with disabilities who bear the brunt of these policies. The increasing use of exclusionary disciplinary sanctions, such as in-school and out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, or referrals to law enforcement authorities result in significant negative educational and social outcomes and contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Instead, schools should be doubling-down on the suggested practices, including increasing students’ access to the support services they need, ranging from counseling and  mental health services to training in social-emotional skills and competencies.

Arming teachers is an even more dangerous proposal. Aside from the fact that teachers are not trained for and do not want this responsibility, imagine the dangers of having to keep guns available in school, loaded or with ammunition nearby to be ready in the seconds available in such an emergency. We would then likely have to add schools to the places where unintentional shootings by children and youth occur (there were 88 of these last year), worry about angry or suicidal young people getting hold of the guns made more accessible by their presence in schools, and experience the predictable agony of children caught in the crossfire between shooters and their own teachers.

It is clearly time for America to come to its senses about gun violence in our society and safety in our schools. The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population but has 31% of the world’s mass shooters, and we have gun homicide rates 25 times higher than those of other high-income countries. Clearly it is time for sensible gun registration laws and for laws that keep assault weapons out of the hands of civilians.

And in our schools, we need to continue the work done by many states that are pursuing educative approaches to school safety and student success by reducing school exclusions and leveraging initiatives that strengthen students’ social-emotional skills, mental health supports, and sense of safety and belonging. If we genuinely want to ensure safer schools, we should follow the evidence about what works, rather than jeopardizing lives with ideological battles.

Photo by AnubisAbyss [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons