Child Watch® Column: "Right and Wrong Answers on School Safety"

Release Date: April 5, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

Here’s a multiple-choice quiz: 
Which of the following should be part of a model school safety plan?

a)      Proven evidence-based models for school violence reduction that focus on preventing misbehavior and violence by promoting a healthy, positive school climate.

b)      Threat assessment, emphasis on positive behavioral interventions, social and emotional learning, nonviolent conflict resolution, and community engagement including parents, students, educators, and faith and civic leaders. 

c)      Trained mental health professionals (social workers and psychologists) and school counselors to identify problems early and support students and educators.   

d)     Keeping school doors locked after the start of the school day, creating a space where children are safe to learn and teachers are safe to teach. 

e)      Putting armed guards and more guns in every school in America.

f)       Arming teachers and principals.

g)      Putting law enforcement in charge of school safety and school discipline.

If you answered e), f), and g) give yourself a failing grade.  Despite the loud voice of the National Rifle Association (NRA), scholars, experts on school safety, and teachers overwhelmingly disagree with turning schools into armed camps rather than places of nonviolent positive learning. School safety is a non-negotiable priority. The current national debate about how best to achieve school safety is a natural result of the horror we feel when violence happens at a school like the unbearable Newtown, Connecticut massacre of 20 small children and their teachers.  We must do all we can to end school and community violence but we need to make the right choices and make sure the solutions are effective and do not create other dangerous consequences for children.

On March 28, the Advancement Project issued a report A Real Fix: A Gun-Free Way to School Safety that highlights what many people already know to be true:  more guns are not the way to achieve less violence in schools. In fact, adding guns and increasing police presence in schools can do more harm than good to countless children—usually children of color or with special needs who are suspended, expelled, criminalized and arrested for nonviolent offenses—pushing them onto a path to school failure, dropout, and the prison pipeline.   

There is no evidence that armed guards or police officers in schools make children safer.  An armed guard at Columbine High School in 1999 and a full campus police force at Virginia Tech in 2007 were unable to stop the massacres that occurred at both schools. A 2010 review of existing research found no evidence that the use of police to handle school disorders reduces the occurrence of problem behavior in schools but there is evidence that over-policing leads to a new set of problems.   

The Advancement Project and others highlight the city of Denver as a model for how to create a balanced approach to school discipline with student and parental input and avoid the too common overreaction by some in the wake of school tragedies. Denver public schools, like many Colorado schools, initially responded to the tragedy of Columbine by more vigorously enforcing zero tolerance policies and adding more police, security guards, and metal detectors.  Between 2000 and 2004, Denver experienced a seventy-one percent increase in school referrals to law enforcement.  The majority were for nonviolent behaviors like the use of obscenities, disruptive appearance, and destruction of non-school property, not the violent and dangerous behavior zero school discipline policies were designed to deter. Serious misconduct like carrying a dangerous weapon to school accounted for only seven percent of the referrals. 

In 2008, parents and youths working with then-Superintendent (now U.S. Senator) Michael Bennet, led by the group Padres y Jóvenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United), worked together to successfully secure reforms that dramatically revised the discipline code, abandoning the post-Columbine zero tolerance discipline practices in Denver Public Schools.  Denver’s police now have a limited role in the schools and the district is making progress in reducing school-based arrests and the racial disparities in those arrests.  As the Advancement Project said in the earlier report Why Police in Schools Aren’t The Answer:  “We should learn from the policy choices made by the Colorado legislators and school officials—not repeat them . . . Every dollar that goes into police, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras is a dollar that could have been used for teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, and program supports for young people.”

Although most of the mass shooters at schools have been White, boys of color have paid the consequences of overreaction and punitive discipline. The trend towards over-policing is most pronounced in schools with large populations of students of color, which are more likely to rely on zero tolerance policies and have a significant police presence in them.  As a result, the Advancement Project points out, “it is not uncommon for the same behavior that triggers little to no response in many predominately White communities to result in severe consequences in communities of color.” I am certainly for gun- and violence-free schools but there are significant dangers to young people attending schools that over-police and apply zero tolerance discipline policies to nonviolent offenses.

There are better ways for providing an effective model school safety plan, including the steps described in answers a), b), c), and d) in the multiple-choice quiz above.  Successful models for school safety plans emphasize relationship building among students, between students and educators, and with parents and the community at large; consistent reinforcement of positive norms through rewards or lessons; and individualized approaches to student discipline and intervention that seek to address root causes of misbehavior rather than to punish indiscriminately. Districts that consistently implement these kinds of practices don’t just see a reduction in suspensions and expulsions, but also improvements in measures of positive school climate and reductions in behavioral problems. And when children are positively engaged in learning with their educators there are fewer discipline problems.

The kinds of school safety plans we should be striving for are not plans to saturate schools with more guns whose only proven beneficiaries are gun manufacturers’, sellers’, and advertisers’  bottom lines. Our nation already has too many guns.  Now is the time to insist your elected officials vote to protect children not guns.  Tell them to support what close to 90 percent of Americans and 74 percent of NRA members want—universal background checks to make our country safer. Tell them you want them to do everything they can to make our schools safer for children but that turning them into armed camps is the wrong answer. 


Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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