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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

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

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Lucy at: May 8, 2013
I have been reading with admiration your wise, common sense, which is so uncommon, articles about children. Concerning violence in schools, I am speaking as the Holocaust survivor, telling the students that Hitler was a super bully allowed to grow because no one stopped him in time. I am telling them that the only way to prevent their classroom bullies and all the other bullies of the world, from taking over, is the realization that there are far more people who are not bullies than there are bullies, and to be united in the defense of everyone who is being bullied by every witness of bullying. This is the only efficient way of dealing with bullies in schools, and dealing with the bullies from rifle association outside of schools. It is also very important to help bullies in schools to feel that they can be noticed by others for positive actions, or be noticed and treated if their mental health is a problem.

Submitted by Passionate at: May 3, 2013
I would first just like to say that I completely agree with answers A, B, C, and D on the quiz. I am biased as well being a School Social Worker, and going to a university that prides itself on "evidence-based" practices. This all attributes to the school climate and environment. Like the column stated, even though many mass shooters are White, the minority children are the ones who are disproportionately affected by the metal detectors, security guards, and police personnel that they experience in their schools. Personally, I have not see many metal detectors and security guards in many elementary schools, but they are in most of the inner city middle schools and high schools in Chicago. The grammar schools that go from K-8th usually have security personnel. This is an interesting conflict for me because many of the students transfer their community environment to the schools that they attend. Though a school is suppose to be considered a safe place of learning, it is predominantly minority schools where the "little" infractions occur, which disrupts the learning environment. Though most mass school shooting have happened in "well-rounded, business-class" neighborhoods, I attribute daily aggressive behavior in schools to the school environment. We all know zero-tolerance policies do not work (it is proven), but I feel that they keep being implemented because administration are not changing the environment of the school based on the quiz answers that were given earlier. Ultimately, changing school environment corresponds with changing the community environment, but I do believe that a positive school climate can be changed internally and can exist with the cohesiveness of every personnel from the principle right down to the custodian. There are many examples of schools that coexist in impoverished and at-risk environments, but these schools are deemed "extraordinary." These schools need to be the norm. Like I stated earlier, I whole-heartedly believe that school, family, and community is the holistic solution for successful children (hence, why I love CDF). Personally, safety officers/security guards don't just exist for the purpose of weapons. Working at a middle school and high school, and going through school myself, there are far more incidents of defiant and aggressive behavior than the threat of someone bringing a weapon to school. Teachers working at low-performing, at-risk schools are more likely to deal with daily aggressive behavior from students that disrupts the classroom teaching time. In the immediate moment, zero-tolerance/ disciplinary actions seem like the most efficient way to "handle" the student (I am guilty of this myself). This shows that it takes time, effort, and energy for us to stop, think, and implement the "best practices" that we learn. A personal example are the Freedom Schools we work at during the summer. We are serving the same population of students, but do not have the same behavior issues occurring. Most of the time if we do, I know at my FS site, it is the SLI that is trained on how to effectively handle the behavior. I know that it takes extensive time, extensive financial and energy resources, and extensive commitment to redevelop communities and people's way of thinking, but I know it can be done.

Submitted by Elderglo at: April 8, 2013
The strategies and non-democratic cultural message promoting killing is the "teaching"that says answers are guns and bullying is a way to get attention and certain rewards. We as a Country are anti-life unless it in in the uterus. We should be teaching our children how to observe, How to report, who is safe (hopefully parents and teachers but we know that is not the criteria for being in the public school systems) It is scarry as a nurse, mother ,grandmother to think of some of the teachers I have known with a weapon. We also know that values transmission is a family and community job. Persons who are self and money absorbed to the extent they create wars,both domestic and internationally for their own material lusts are not to be followed. We the people have to confront their thinking ? errors. No to killers!Protection and meeting physiological needs even comes before safety on the hierarchy of needs. Thanks for the opportunity to learn from your stance.

Submitted by Anonymous at: April 6, 2013
When a child consistently disrupts the learning environment, how do we get greater parental involvement?

Submitted by Matt at: April 6, 2013
Mrs. Edelman, I invite you to our high school in Pennsauken NJ to see how School Resource Officers SRO's (Police Officers) interact with and protect our students everyday. See how students come to them and tell them about problems in the neighborhood that might spill over into the school. See how they tell them about someone who has drugs, or a gun in the school. Please get out of your office and see how these officers interact with students everyday in the real world.

Submitted by Anonymous at: April 5, 2013
It's important to make sure children come to school with their basic needs met as well. Also important to have sufficient staff to allow for 1:1 intervention and support for students who are isolated for whatever reason.

Submitted by Retired Teacher at: April 5, 2013
Let's have criminal background checks on all students, parents, teachers and employees to prevent anyone with a record from entering a schoolhouse. That makes more sense than gun control, since few incidents in schools involve a firearm, and most kids are victimized by repeat offenders.

Submitted by Anonymous at: April 5, 2013
As an educator of over 30+ years, and one who "retired my salary but not my involvement with students and families, I invite you to go to my web site, and review what our Coalition is doing help our elementary school children learn, not only that our schools are safe so they don't have to be afraid, but they can HELP us keep their schools safe for themselves, their peers and their schools' staffs! They can also be safe to and from school and in their communities at large, and learn to recognize possible danger and get the right kind of help to stay ssfe! The elementary school curriculum we developed is similar to NRA's in content, but we use a real police officer in an all school assembly so they can see their protectors are just like the adults in their own lives, but wear a uniform they can recognize and call on when they sense danger. After the initial assembly introduction to the program, the officer visits students in their own classrooms with age-appropriate materials for further instruction. PRIOR TO THE 1ST CONTACT, BLC members and building leadership meet to discuss focus of content, including schools' safety priorities for their student, and information flyers are sent home so parents or other adults responsible for the children will know what's going on, and may even attend the assembly, depending on space available and/or other school expectations.The program is free to the schools and families, even when costs must be dependent on the Coalition members! We'll appreciate constructive comments, criticism, and even donations, reader(s) be willing and able! Most Sincerely, (Mrs) Connie Rickman, Founder/President

Submitted by CVStoudt at: April 5, 2013
I was horribly bullied as a child and a teenager. Unfortunately, I always had a weight issue, and then my skin suffered a horrible affliction of acne and hydrodinitis suppurativa. Every day someone thought it was their right to hurt me, either physically or mentally, usually verbally in some form. I was, I am, scarred by this. I fight today to live normally, though I still have issues due to everything I went through. The thing along with all of this, there weren't really many adults I felt I could trust or go to. There were two or three people. One person even yelled at me stating that I needed to think about what I was doing to make these people treat me this way. Truth is: I just lived. We need to teach tolerance. Granted, everyone is not going to like or want to be with everyone else. Still, in the adult world, teamwork and being a team member is important, most times. We need to stress this in classes. We need to teach the kids of all ages that while they may not like someone, they can control themselves enough to treat people with respect and acceptance. They do not have to hang out with someone, they don't have to live with someone they don't like, but they have to obey the golden rule: treat others as you would like them to treat you. These things DO NOT make a nation of sissys. Look at Japan for this inspiration: they are strong and get things done in a short amount of time because they believe in teamwork and getting things done: working for the good of all. They are a proud people who are in no way weak. I strongly believe the problems we face are first and foremost a societal problem. We as a people have to start looking at what we hold valuable above all else. I know many will be unhappy to see such a comment, but it's true. We are facing a problem with ourselves, as people. We need to finally face up to the facts at hand. We are so concerned with technology and money and personal satisfaction, our fellow human beings are slipping by the wayside. To be blunt: No one cares about anyone else! Oh, but those afflictions that effect others, gods forbid they come home! I really do believe we need to slow down and relax, hold our responsibilities at least a bit higher than our wants, life a bit higher than technology and 'progress', and reconnect with the world - and I do mean beyond just humanity, the other lives on Earth as well, balance ecology and economy. Yes, I'm preaching perhaps more than a bit, but it's what I've been feeling for a while. We are definitely at a crossroads in human history. Which way are we going? No, what I've said here won't solve the fact that we will have mentally disturbed people of varying degrees, or rids the world of all conflict, but perhaps it will help us to respond more than react. Isn't it worth a try?

Submitted by Erik Wood at: April 5, 2013
The writer in this piece seems to have entirely missed the point that the gun rights community and other rational minds have made: so-called "Gun Free Zones" are open season killing zones. The perpetrators of such high profile murders as those in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora Colorado, Fort Hood and Newtown all correctly interpreted posted gun free zone warnings as a confirmation that they would meet with zero resistance when they commenced their murder sprees -thus ensuring maximum body count and a guaranteed escape. While steps A, B, C, and D are all laudable pursuits and should indeed advance a more positive and tighter knit school community, it utterly fails to acknowledge that killers exist, and that they are -as likely as not- strangers who simply chose their target out of convenience. They will not come into contact with or be affected or deterred by the outreach methods described in this piece. They don't care. They cannot be reasoned with, nor can they be coddled into good behavior. It is a hard reality that police officers MUST carry firearms from day to day because they may come face to face with the kind of criminally insane or evil individual who is armed and unscrupulous about whom they kill. If and when that should happen in your town, would you feel safer knowing there was someone there to take such a dangerous person out before they murdered your child? I would. It isn't even a question. We have armed guards at banks, at stadiums, at government buildings and around celebrities and politicians every day. We never seem to get bent out of shape that we're living in an "Armed Camp". We accept their presence because they're protecting those things which we as a society have placed value upon: our money, our institutions, our cultural icons. Why in God's name would anyone take such leave of their senses when in comes to protecting our single most precious gift: our children? what are we going to do while we figure out the correct courses of action to address the problems of violence in our society? Such an endeavor will likely take years, and is still no guarantee that we will eliminate evil from the hearts and minds of Human kind. There will always be someone out there looking for an opportunity to go down in history as the killer with the highest body count on record. The question is: what real world steps will we take to protect our children from a copycat killer who may stroll into their school tomorrow? It sure as hell ought to be posting armed guards where our children go to school. Whether it be teachers who want to carry, or parents who have concealed carry permit -many of whom are military, law enforcement or professional security. Any armed security is better than no security whatsoever, but who would be least likely to run away in the face of danger, a paid security guard, or someone's parent or the teachers who love their students? We trust our children to the care of teachers all day, for 5 days a week. They help them to learn, grow, play, share, respect and love themselves and others, etc... They are caregivers in the highest meaning of the word. They help kids to the bathroom when they're not feeling well and hold their head if they have to throw up. They are like a second set of parents and they love our children with a ferocity second only to the rfeal parents and family. I say lets give them the respect that commitment deserves and arm them with the appropriate tools and TRAINING (emphasis added) to throw at an armed intruder instead of their own living bodies. I shudder to think of how the principle at Sandy Hook must have wished for something better as she sacrificed her life to initiate the school lockdown.

Submitted by LATeach at: April 5, 2013
Clap, clap, clap!!! I am a Colorado teacher and we are really making efforts on a,b,c,and d in my middle school. These are positve steps and promote a healthy school climate.

Submitted by Goose53 at: April 5, 2013
Let's see... Sandy Hook was locked. The shooter broke in. So much for locking schools keeping kids safe. While I'd hate to see teachers packing heat, I'm even more concerned about them having the competency required to, actually, USE them in defense of the kids. Who's going to send every teacher/administrator through police academy training? On the other hand.... I'm, extremely, pro-gun. When I was in school, I used to hunt before and after school, so my rifle or shotgun (depending on which game was in season) was in my vehicle, in the school parking lot. Nobody batted an eye, because we didn't have all the paranoia and vilification of those nasty, evil guns. All these mass-shooting take place in "gun-free" zones, right? This tells me that gun-free zones are the most dangerous places to be.

Submitted by eittodcro at: April 5, 2013
If my children had to go to school with armed guards hired to create a safety zone, I'd pull them out of such an environment. How absurd!

Submitted by BlueReview at: April 5, 2013
When I heard Wayne LaPierre's comment about arming teachers, my first thought was, "Friendly fire." The second thought was, "ricochet." The phrase "shooting gallery" wandered through somewhere about then.

Submitted by Dana at: April 5, 2013
no guns in our schools! Get guns off our streets and our communities

Submitted by Anne at: April 5, 2013
The NRA does not understand that educators and their school boards are fully aware of the difference between School Resource Officers and the armed guards that are being proposed by National School Shield. Furthermore, the NRA did not include any educators on the task force that formulated National School Shield. We are the ones who know what our students' environments should include AND exclude, and we can do that quite well with the help of our local law enforcement agencies. We must stand together to insist that our schools remain the safe, nurturing and age-appropriate environments that they should be. Ms. Edelman, thank you for this article. It is another call to stand together and change the culture!