Well, we should have seen that coming. As the nation continues to grieve for the teachers and children massacred in Connecticut last week, it was inevitable that some policymakers would begin to offer up this solution for dealing with school shootings: just arm the teachers.
Naturally, some of these advocates are from my home state of Virginia. But the same idea is being pitched in the halls of Congress and on right-wing blogs.
As a former school board member and state legislator, I spent 20 years working on school safety issues, conducted hundreds of student discipline hearings (required in Virginia before a student can be expelled), and led the effort to rewrite the Code of Virginia section that dealt with school safety and discipline. From that perspective, I have just one thing to say about this idea.
Sandy Hook was just the latest in a series of school shootings that began at Columbine. But because of the age of the victims, there is a sense of urgency about doing something about gun violence this time.
Since this may be the only time in a generation that the nation can address this difficult issue, it would be a good idea if we did things that work. And while my colleague John Chubb has outlined issues like helping students build social capital, I want to suggest practical steps that schools can take:
School resource officers. When our school division first confronted a rise in gang violence, we committed to placing a police officer in every middle and high school. It worked, but not for the reason gun advocates might suspect (that they were armed). This was “community policing” at its best. Officers got to know students, which meant they got clued in when trouble was about to break out. (Big school fights are typically very poorly-kept secrets. Students usually know the who, what, when, and where before the fight actually starts.) We also found that the resource officers were helpful to students who were not violent–at least one resource officer at my local high school testified on behalf of a girl who was being sexually abused by a stepfather. That in turn gave them increased credibility with students.
Zero tolerance policies. These policies have become conflated with “kick first graders out of school for bringing a paring knife to school.” That was not their original intention, which was to make it clear that certain infractions will be addressed firmly every single time they occur.
At one point in my school board career, we faced an epidemic of “beat-downs,” (a terrifying adolescent rite of passage in which a gang of students would corner someone and beat the living tar out of him or her). The problem was that the victim typically could not identify which students had actually struck blows; that made it difficult to mete out discipline under a policy that only addressed those who had actually struck another student. So we changed the policy, subjecting any student who was in the area to the prospect of disciplinary action. And then we enforced the policy, every time. There are almost no beat-downs in our schools any more.
Keeping guns out of schools. Period. Here are words you will rarely see me write: Governor Rick Snyder was right. Yesterday, the Michigan governor vetoed measure that would have allowed concealed weapons in schools. Public venues, he said, “need clear legal authority to ban firearms on their premises if they see fit to do so.”
Teachers, in overwhelming numbers, do not want to arm themselves. As one chemistry teacher noted (in a great blog whose name is NSFW), they want to “blow students’ minds with awesome chemistry,” not “[blow] away some would-be spree killer.”
In announcing a commission today to address this issue, President Obama promised this would be no ordinary Washington commission–in other words, another blue-ribbon commission whose report ends up gathering dust on a shelf.
But that would be better than adopting a policy that stands no chance of making things better.
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