The United States leads the developed world in mass shootings and firearms related deaths. Our policies are not working. Unfortunately, the solutions offered by many are just more of the same misguided policies that brought us to this violent situation. Many of the proposals seek to criminalize and weaponize our schools so that they are as heavily armed and unjust as our streets. As the Trump administration calls for arming more school employees in the wake of the recent Florida school shooting, it is important to consider what ramping up the weapons at school will mean for students. We already have a school-to-prison pipeline that sends an alarming number of students of color into the criminal justice system. Militarizing school officers will make that problem a whole lot worse.
It is worth noting that there is little indication that armed security officers actually keep students safer. The armed officer at the Parkland school shooting stayed outside rather than going in and trying to stop the shooter. And FBI statistics demonstrate that having an armed officer present during a bank robbery triples the likelihood that shots will be fired or someone will be injured. Thus, objective evidence does not suggest that introducing more weapons into schools will make them safer. But regardless of where one stands on that issue, it is also important to look at what it means to have more armed security officers in schools during the rest of the time, when there aren’t school shootings to contend with.
One real concern is how heavily arming the security guards patrolling our schools shifts their focus from being safety officers to being law enforcers. We see that attitude change whenever local police forces are outfitted with surplus military gear—the weaponization itself changes the mission. Officers shift from viewing themselves as protectors of the community to seeing themselves as “at war” with the community. As research on law enforcement militarization describes, “Militarization makes every problem — even a car of teenagers driving away from a party — look like a nail that should be hit with an AR-15 hammer.” A recent statistical analysis published in the Washington Post found that even controlling for other possible factors in police violence, when a law enforcement agency gets money to militarize its gear, there is an immediate and dramatic increase in the number of civilians killed by the police. There is no reason to believe that school safety officers are immune from this phenomenon.
And, sadly, the brunt of the attitude-shift from community protectors to “us against them” will be borne by students of color. School discipline disproportionately targets students of color. United States Department of Education statistics show that when schools discipline students, the race of the offender impacts how severe the punishment will be. The Department of Education’s 2014 data showed that black students were suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students. And schools are increasingly criminalizing student misbehavior, particularly for students of color. The Center for Public Integrity used Department of Education data to create an interactive chart that shows state by state how black, Latino and special-needs students are referred to the police and criminal courts at more frequent rates than white students. During a recent school year in Wyoming, for instance, only 1.5% of students were black and 80% were white, but black students were referred to the police or courts for school incidents at more than three times the rate of white students. That is an alarming disparity showing how school discipline targets students of color. Add a heavily armed security officer into the mix, escalating the situations, and the likely tragic results are terrifying.
Schools are a place for learning, and no student should have to fear for his or her life while at school. But our country needs to tackle its gun problem head on. Adding more and more guns is not a solution, but an extension of systemic problems into our schools.