School-to-Prison Pipeline: Wrong Lessons From Sandy Hook
By now, there have been plenty of negative reactions to last week’s defeat of sensible gun regulation in the U.S. Senate due to the power of the gun lobby to have more sway with senators than popular opinion has.
In his Rose Garden address, President Obama was incredulous that legislation favored by 90 percent of Americans couldn’t get 60 votes in the Senate.
News stories about the bill’s defeat invariably referenced the origin of the bill in the “tragedy” of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Even former U.S. House Representative Gabrielle Giffords – an ardent backer of the bill and a victim of gun violence herself – castigated the senators’ fear of the gun lobby as a shameful contrast to “the fear the first graders in Sandy Hook Elementary School felt as their lives ended by a hail of bullets.”
The quick take on this might lead you to believe that the massacre of innocent school children in Newtown has had little to no effect on how Americans have dealt with school safety and gun proliferation.
You would be mistaken.
Legacy Of The Sandy Hook Shootings
Although connecting the Sandy Hook shootings to high-profile legislation in D.C. seemed to impart little power to passing the bill, the aura of that tragedy has quietly been at work producing all kinds of other actions around the country
While federal lawmakers hesitated and then faltered to take action on restricting gun commerce, policy makers elsewhere in America have had no problem using the Sandy Hook shootings to rationalize new ways to turn school buildings into harsher, more punitive environments for the students who populate them.
The result is likely to be more students – particularly students of color – having disciplinary issues that result in suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and referrals to the criminal justice system, and what has become known as America’s “school-to-prison pipeline” will quite probably grow ever larger unless this wave of nonsense stops.
More Guns And Guards In Schools
Following the Sandy Hook shootings, there were widespread reports of school districts adding more police presence, in the form of “campus resource officers,” to their campuses.
As this article in The Atlantic reported, following the killings, there was “a spate of new bills proposed at the state level – including in Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia – to either allow educators to carry weapons or to add armed guards to public schools.”
Altogether, The Sunlight Foundation, found that, post-Sandy Hook, 36 states were considering legislation related to guns on school grounds with “the vast majority of these bills” making it “easier for school personnel, guards, and volunteers to carry guns on campus.”
As the Politics K-12 blog at Education Week observed, the Obama administration helped move this effort along by providing “incentives for schools to hire resource officers . . . by giving priority to applicants who plan to use the U.S. Department of Justice’s COPs grants.”
The National Parent Teachers Association noted the White House’s move to encourage more guns and guards in schools and declared that action a “disappointment.”
What’s wrong with heightened “school security?”
What More Guns And Guards Do To Schools
As the above-mentioned article in The Atlantic noted, “about a third of states already allow school personnel to carry concealed weapons on campus,” so there is a long and well-researched track record for what happens when school and government officials respond to violent incidents by stocking schools with more guns and guards. That track record is not good.
As a recent op-ed in the Raleigh News and Observer noted, “on the heels of the Columbine High School massacre,” schools “rapidly increased deployment of law enforcement officers.” This resulted in “soaring rates of suspension, dropouts and school-based arrests and court referrals” that pushed students committing school infraction into the juvenile and criminal systems.
A recent article in The New York Times also looked at the track record for adding more guns and guards in schools and found “the most striking impact of school police officers so far, critics say, has been a surge in arrests or misdemeanor charges for essentially nonviolent behavior – including scuffles, truancy and cursing at teachers – that sends children into the criminal courts.”
“Nationwide,” the report continued, “hundreds of thousands of students are arrested or given criminal citations at schools each year” with Texas setting the worst example, “where police officers based in schools write more than 100,000 misdemeanor tickets each year.”
“A large share are sent to court for relatively minor offenses, with black and Hispanic students and those with disabilities disproportionately affected,” the report found.
When a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group studied the results of increased police presence in schools, their investigation found that officers were so rarely called upon to address real emergencies that they found “something else to do” and became “the de facto disciplinary arm of the school.”
As reported by USA Today’s Greg Toppo, increased police presence in schools resulted in a spike in students being arrested in school “for things like disorderly conduct” that previously would not involve the criminal justice system.
One of the researchers, testifying before Congress just three days before the Newtown shooting, explained that school discipline is “increasingly handled by law enforcement, and today, students are more likely to be arrested for minor in-school offenses.”
According to Toppo, her testimony included the statistic that harsher, more punitive security measures in schools have resulted in over 3 million students being suspended and over 100,000 students being expelled nationwide, each year.
There’s Money For Guns And Guards
At a time when most states are cutting education budgets, and depressed property taxes are reducing local revenues for schools, lawmakers are having no problem finding cash to spend on guns and guards in schools.
According to The Center for Public Integrity, post-Sandy Hook, a state legislative delegation in Florida approved a proposal to increase property taxes to pay for more school police, “at an annual cost of up to $130,000 per officer.”
A bill in Mississippi “set up a $7.5 million school-security fund.” Alabama legislators proposed “a lottery to pay for a $20 million plan to put police officers in every school.” And Indiana lawmakers weighed a measure to “set aside $10 million to offer grants to schools to hire local police to post in schools.”
Minority Students Hit Hardest
The increased rates of suspensions and expulsions that result from more police presence in schools are particularly devastating for students of color.
According to a report in The Christian Science Monitor, the number of school suspensions nationwide has grown dramatically in recent decades, from nearly 1.8 million students – 4 percent of all public-school students – in 1976, to, by 2006, 3.3 million – 7 percent of all students. “In addition to the suspensions, 102,000 students were expelled – removed from school for the remainder of the year or longer – in 2006.”
Suspensions and expulsions for certain groups – “particularly African-Americans, Hispanics, and those with disabilities” – are disproportionally high,” the report found, with African-Americans making up 18 percent of the students but “accounting for 46 percent of students suspended more than once, 39 percent of students expelled, and 36 percent of students arrested on campus.”
An even more recent report, this one from The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles Civil Rights Project, found “an increasing gap between suspension rates of black and white students,” with “24 percent of black students” getting the brunt of harsh discipline measures while only “7.1 percent of white students” experienced the same treatment.
According to a write-up of the report in The Huffington Post, “Most of the suspensions came not in response to violent behavior, but for minor infractions such as dress code violations or lateness. The research also found that suspensions increase the likelihood kids will drop out of school and commit crimes.”
Some Say “Enough!”
The strong correlation of guns and guards in schools to increasing rates of school suspensions, expulsions, and arrests has not gone unnoticed, and a growing number of educators and lawmakers have expressed concern that society will pay down the road for more jobless and incarcerated young people.
In fact, a different article about the study from the UCLA Project, quoted one of the report’s authors who noted, “The likelihood of dropping out from school can rise to 32 percent for a ninth-grader who’s been suspended just once.”
The civil rights coalition that produced the research from The Advancement Project, cited above, took action to preempt more guns and guards in schools with a “Gun Free Way to School Safety” recommending schools “focus on prevention of crisis situations through creation of a positive school culture,” enact “appropriate security measures” that don’t involve law enforcement personnel, and develop a “school crisis plan.”
Recently, the National School Boards Association released a report declaring that the use of out-of-school suspensions had reached a “crisis” level. The report, released in conjunction with the National Opportunity to Learn campaign (a funder of the Education Opportunity Network), included new policy guidelines for “discipline policies aimed at ending excessive and discriminatory out-of-school suspensions.”
Education Week reported that NSBA declared “School board members should lead the charge to reduce, if not eliminate, the practice of out-of-school suspensions and instead push comprehensive strategies for preventing the removal of students from school for disciplinary reasons.”
Students have spoken out as well, organizing in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in separate yet connected efforts to promote a process called “restorative justice.”
These and other recent actions got the attention of the editorial board of The New York Times, who last week expressed concern about “a larger police presence in schools” that can “create a repressive environment in which children are arrested or issued summonses for minor misdeeds — like cutting class or talking back — that once would have been dealt with by the principal.”
The editors called for “greater transparency in the reporting process to make the police even more forthcoming” and more efforts “to dismantle . . . the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Their recommendation: “Districts that have gotten along without police officers should think twice before deploying them in school buildings.”
Truly, isn’t this the least we can do?
If the horrendous crime that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary can’t provide the impetus for positive action on gun control, let’s make sure it doesn’t provide the rationale for turning schools into extensions of a brutal, uncaring culture we want our children to abhor.
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