Cameron Kasky is an 11th grader who survived the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. When asked by a reporter if it was too soon to begin demanding changes to the law, Cameron replied, “It's too late. It's too late. It’s never too soon. The second this happened, it became too late.”
All of us can understand Cameron’s sense of urgency and desperate need for meaningful solutions that are not simply reactive — as many seem to be — but that are focused on preventing tragedies from happening in schools, to the extent possible.
I certainly understand that urgency. I am the mother of two boys who are two and four years old. Before each of my sons was born, and many times since, I experienced moments of absolute terror when I thought that their well being was at risk. When I hear about horrible violence in a school, I immediately wonder if the same could happen at my sons’ schools. I alternate between paralysis, simply not knowing what I can possibly do to keep them safe, and extreme protectiveness, wanting to barricade them in our home and never let them out of my sight.
I also understand the urgency and need for meaningful solutions because the work I have chosen to do is focused on advocating for the appropriate — limited — use of police officers in schools and the creation of positive school climates.
My roles as a mother and as an advocate feel like they are in conflict immediately following school violence. My first reaction is fear driven, and it is extreme. But, when the dust settles a bit, I start to think about the type of school environment that I truly want for my children. I know that I do not want them to go to school in a place that feels like a prison, where armed officers roam the halls and teachers carry guns. Rather, I want them to spend their days in a space that feels safe because they know and trust the adults that guide them, because a protective community has built up around them and because they are free to learn without feeling like they are criminals or the targets of constant suspicion.
The same conflicts that I experience personally also seem to play out in the larger conversations that take place after tragedies like those in Douglas High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School. But, the trouble comes when the collective dust does not settle, and decision-makers continue to contemplate harmful and ineffective approaches to addressing school violence.
Recently, the Texas Education Agency issued a document, Safety Options for School Districts and Charters. The “safety options” include creating school district police departments, hiring police officers from local law enforcement agencies and participating in programs that arm teachers and other school employees. All the options involve increasing the use of weapons, the monitoring of students or the presence of police in schools. While these may feel like adequate responses in this moment, they will do far more harm than good and will negatively impact Texas students.
The way to protect schools is not through the creation of armed fortresses and draconian punishment: These methods are contrary to decades of research and ignore the desires of many members of school communities.
Increasing the presence of police in schools can actually destabilize campuses. Too often, officers are asked to intervene in minor behavior issues in schools, which can actually create unnecessary, traumatic interactions for students and lead to feelings of resentment and mistrust between young people and law enforcement. Officers should not roam hallways or monitor cafeterias; they should only be called to address emergency situations that threaten the safety of students and educators.
Many teachers do not want to carry guns in schools — a sentiment shared by many police officers. In chaotic situations, multiple shooters can create confusion for law enforcement about who the actual threat is. Many students and parents do not want school employees to carry guns in schools.
The TEA “safety options” do not provide recommendations for ways that school districts can create positive school climates that foster trusting relationships between youth and adults, nor do they provide recommendations for schools to access professionals and tools to provide real mental health and social work services for students and families.
The research-based way of protecting schools, students, and teachers is not a quick fix. It would rely on us to prioritize and allocate funding to support programs and experts who are focused on prevention and intervention supports and services so that we can identify and appropriately address individual student needs and recognize issues that may be impacting the safety of the entire school community. If educators and administrators have the tools they need to properly address student needs and create supportive campus climates, they would not need to over-rely on school resource officers or punitive strategies that are an easy reach in the moment but don’t address a student’s underlying behavioral challenges.
We all grapple with complex and sometimes conflicting feelings about how to keep students safe. We feel an urgency to protect students however we can. But before we make decisions, we should think about what we truly want for the students we know, just as I think about what I truly want for my boys. I hope that all of us —lawmakers, educators, parents, advocates, students — do what we can to make sure that schools are supportive, safe, and happy places for my boys and every other child in Texas.
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