Race and Equity

OPINION: Listen to our children – take away the guns, then counsel troubled youth instead of policing them

We can’t wait for Washington

Fort Lauderdale, FL — In the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, protesters attend a Feb. 17, 2018 rally at the Federal Courthouse here to demand government action on firearms.

Here is what keeps happening and has to stop: nothing. Elected officials have failed time and time again to adopt gun-control measures that will prohibit and ban the sale of the high-powered weapons used in Sandy Hook, Parkland and countless other mass shootings across the country.

Here is a way forward: we can center our efforts around the transformative power of youth organizing on gun control and on creating safe, supported schools that don’t use highly politicized security tactics.

The transformation is happening already. Days after their classmates and teachers were gunned down, Parkland, Florida students called out President Trump and other elected officials for doing the bidding of the NRA and gun lobbyists while ignoring the clear common denominator: high-powered automatic weapons.

These students have gotten the nation’s attention.

As we move forward by centering around these students, and their families, we must include another group whose efforts become more important than ever in the face of this violent shooting.

They are the families and educators at the forefront of the movement to create, safe, supportive and inclusive school communities.

These people are shifting the paradigm of school safety away from policing, surveillance and invasive security measures. Instead, they have embraced practices that can help every student: comprehensive social-emotional and mental health supports, restorative justice and trauma-informed care.

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Here is why the shooting in Florida makes their efforts so crucial: Across the country, the response to many previous school tragedies has been to prioritize invasive security measures, police presence and high-tech surveillance in schools.

The impulse to turn learning environments into some sort of militarized “safe zones” becomes the prevailing notion.

It’s a notion that is likely to become a lead talking point for the current administration.

It is a notion that isn’t effective.

And it is a notion that negatively impacts black, Latino and indigenous students.

These are the students who have been hyper-criminalized as a result of decades of school discipline and policing policies and practices.

Related: The painful backlash against ‘no-excuses’ school discipline

There is no conclusive evidence that the presence of law enforcement officers keeps our schools any safer. But regardless of the location or circumstances of school-based shootings, resources for police and security become prioritized for schools in low-income communities of color.

We have effectively created a pipeline to funnel young people of color and students with disabilities into the criminal justice system for routine and often subjective disciplinary matters such as truancy, disturbing the school, disrupting the peace, disorderly conduct and schoolyard fights. And we fail to build a path towards the supports needed to address the root causes of trauma, issues, isolation and conflict that young people are forced to navigate.

Schools do not need police officers or school resource officers, they need guidance counselors, social workers, mental health continuums, comprehensive social and emotional supports, trauma-informed care and restorative justice. Nationwide, 850,000 students do not have access to a school counselor and 1.6 million students attend a school with a law-enforcement officer on campus but not a school counselor. According to the National Association of School Nurses, less than half of all schools have a full-time nurse and schools in urban and poor districts have ratios as high as 4,000 students to one nurse. Four years ago, with little attention, two students died in Philadelphia schools that couldn’t afford full-time nurses.

In order to move forward without creating unintended harm for any community, we have to fundamentally rethink safety.

We can do this by centering the voices of the young people, educators and families and human rights advocates that have joined two groups: One group is ready to take to Washington following last week’s tragedy. The other group has been working for safe, supportive and inclusive school communities that embrace alternatives to zero-tolerance, punishment and criminalization.

Instead of equipping schools with metal detectors and children with bulletproof backpacks, we must redirect our school safety funding to equip school communities with the staff, training and supports that have been deprived from them for too long.

We must commit to bringing students closer to support systems integrated in schools and become less inclined to letting them disappear back into our communities. This way, we can wrap them in the supports they need and lessen their risk of isolation and further adverse experiences.

Related: School districts respond to growing fury over police shootings, black male achievement gap

Fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, we should pull his voice into this conversation and reflect on his vision for creating a “beloved community,” by meeting the social needs of everyone in our community.

Addressing the systemic tragedies that go unnoticed will sustain safe and supportive schools. This is true in particular for students in marginalized communities. When people believe policing is a solution for the intentional lack of investment in social resources, it harms these students the most.

Over the weekend, President Trump and Vice President Pence said school safety will top the agenda when the president meets with the nation’s governors at the end of the month. It will perpetuate a continued moral failure if those meetings result in more funding for ineffective approaches to school safety, such as policing.

We have the opportunity to embrace solutions that work for all school communities. But first, we have to stop looking for Washington to lead. The agents we need for change are those who are closest to the problem.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Kesi Foster is an organizer with Make The Road New York, a member of the Urban Youth Collaborative and Dignity in Schools and Alliance for Educational Justice Coalitions. Make The Road New York builds the power of immigrant and working class communities of color to achieve dignity and justice.

Onyx Walker is a youth organizer with Future of Tomorrow, a member of the Urban Youth Collaborative and Dignity in Schools and Alliance for Educational Justice Coalitions. Onyx attended high school in East New York, Brooklyn, and has been leading efforts to end the school-to-prison pipeline and bring restorative justice to schools throughout New York City.


Kesi Foster

Kesi Foster is an organizer with Make The Road New York, a member of the Urban Youth Collaborative and Dignity in Schools and Alliance for… See Archive

Onyx Walker

Onyx Walker is a youth organizer with Future of Tomorrow, a member of the Urban Youth Collaborative and Dignity in Schools and Alliance for Educational… See Archive

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