School Climate & Safety

Civil Rights Groups: School Safety Not Dependent on Guns

March 28, 2013 6 min read
Participants rush out of the cafeteria after hearing simulated gunshots during a lockdown exercise at Milford High School in Milford, Mass., earlier this month. More than 500 teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers and school custodians participated in the training program that taught alternatives to staying in lockdown during a school shooting.
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In a pre-emptive move against a school safety proposal from the National Rifle Association that is expected to include a call for more people trained and approved to carry guns at schools, a coalition of civil rights groups unveiled its own safety plan Thursday. It seeks the creation of positive school climates, thoughtful and comprehensive crisis plans, and improved safety features that don’t turn schools into fortresses.

Both plans—from groups not necessarily considered school safety experts—come as schools have been reworking safety and security measures after the deadliest shootings on a K-12 campus in U.S. history. The December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., took the lives of 20 1st graders and six employees.

The plan from the civil rights groups, which include the Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the NAACP, reiterates a message they sent soon after the shootings: Schools should not add armed officers to improve safety because, instead of protecting schools, the strategy could lead to more juvenile arrests for minor offenses administrators could handle themselves.

Instead of adding police officers to schools, the civil rights groups’ plan, “A Real Fix: The Gun-Free Way to School Safety,” says school safety can be achieved by giving significant weight to students’ mental-health needs and their academic engagement. It guides schools on creating emergency plans, but emphasizes the prevention of crises through the creation of nurturing school environments.

“When you look at school shootings, most of the young people [who are the gunmen] are troubled young people. We have to help troubled young people,” said Judith Browne Dianis, a co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington-based group that works on issues of racial inequality.

“Coming out of Newtown, we have to be looking at long-term solutions for preventing violence,” she said. “It’s got to be a holistic approach to safety and learning and the emotional well-being of children.”

Safety Plan Emphasizes a Nurturing School Climate

One proposal for bolstering school safety from a collection of civil rights groups specifically urges against introducing additional police officers at schools or the arming of any school employees. Among the recommendations in the proposal, “A Real Fix: The Gun-Free Way to School Safety,” and the reasoning behind them:

School safety plans: Emergency plans should address preventing crises and discuss how schools can build a positive climate, which the groups say is key to deterring episodes of school violence. Schools should have written procedures for handling all types of crises, including natural disasters and the rare event of an active shooter. The plans should be updated regularly and be developed with student and parent input. They should also take into account the needs of students with disabilities and English-language learners.

Emergency drills: Students and staff should receive training on how to respond in the event of a crisis, and regularly practice the procedures. But students shouldn’t participate in active shooter or terrorist attack drills. Instead, staff members should be trained to respond to those situations and to lead students through emergency situations.

School safety teams: Schools should assemble teams of students, parents, administrators, teachers, and other employees to develop the school safety plans. The teams should meet regularly to discuss past emergencies and whether school emergency plans were followed or need to be adjusted as a result.

Personnel dedicated to student mental health: Schools must hire counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, and the like to provide mental health services, academic support, and connection with community services. These employees can also intervene before a student commits an act of violence. The proposal says students who feel respected by and connected to adults in the building are more likely to become active participants in keeping schools safe. These employees are also key to helping students recover after a crisis.

Training in student discipline and classroom management: Schools should concentrate on keeping students in school and avoid zero-tolerance policies that require or promote suspending or expelling students. Schools with harsh discipline policies, which often have no effect on student behavior, tend to have poor student-teacher relationships. School discipline methods should never involve law enforcement officers. Alternative approaches include Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS; conflict resolution programs, and restorative justice.

Building security: Schools should tighten access to their campuses, but in ways that students cannot see or feel to prevent creating a prison-like environment. Identification badges for students and staff, centralized communication systems, outdoor cameras, external doors that lock from the outside and classroom doors that lock from the inside, and a system that routes all visitors to a single entrance that can be monitored by video should be considered.

Source: A Real Fix: The Gun-Free Way to School Safety, a plan by the Advancement Project, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other organizations.

Safe, Gun-Free Schools

While the details of the NRA plan won’t be revealed until next week, its leadership called soon after the Newtown shootings for armed personnel in every school—initially at the Fairfax, Va.-based organization’s expense. (One estimate of the cost of adding a school resource officer to every campus in the United States is $12.2 billion.)

The civil rights organizations are countering that proposition, as well as one earlier this year from President Barack Obama that suggests spending $150 million to add up to 1,000 school resource officers to campuses nationwide. The president also asked Congress to allocate money for school counselors and to help schools improve climate.

As a part of his proposal, announced in January, President Obama said that the federal departments of Education, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security would by May issue a set of model, high-quality emergency-management plans for schools and best practices for developing those plans, as well as training students and staff members to follow them.

How Mr. Obama’s plan will be distinct from existing federal emergency-planning guidance for schools remains to be seen.

The civil rights groups’ plan stresses the importance of a healthy school climate and the role of students and families in just about all of the steps it urges schools to take toward improving school safety.

“A Real Fix: The Gun-Free Way to School Safety” advises educational institutions to invest in counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists. By building relationships with students, it says, those staff members can intervene if they suspect a student is in academic or emotional trouble, advise authorities if they learn a student is planning to endanger others, and counsel students during and after a crisis.

To further foster the kind of trusting relationships between students and adults on campus that the groups say are necessary to prevent safety problems, the plan advises schools to shift from discipline policies that yield many out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.

Frequent suspensions can chip away at trust between students and school staff members, the plan says. Administrators and teachers can wind up spending more time punishing students for their behavior than helping them correct it, it says, and frequent punishment can turn students off from school or contribute to their feelings of disengagement.

It’s some of those disengaged students who have, historically, behaved violently in their schools.

Advocates for adding school resource officers—who are law-enforcement officials—say students can build trusting relationships with them and alert them to potential crimes, or use them as counselors. But Ms. Browne Dianis said students are unlikely to confide in someone who carries a weapon and has the power to arrest them or their friends.

“We’re concerned about adding more of them to the equation because of the unintended consequences of what may seem like a rational solution to addressing school safety,” she said. She and the other civil rights advocates worry that officers deployed to handle what are generally rare incidents of violence will end up spending their time handling minor incidents of misbehavior, as they do now in some districts.

Law-enforcement officers assigned to Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., were unable to stop the shootings at that school in 1999, said Deborah J. Vagins, a senior legislative counsel for the ACLU in Washington, yet the tragedy led to the addition of police officers at schools across the country, many funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

At Columbine, an officer assigned to the school was eating lunch when the shootings began. When he responded to a call of a female down on one side of the school, he exchanged fire with one of the two student gunmen, but the gunman was not hit.

“We need to learn from this history and not re-create it when there’s another tragedy,” Ms. Vagins said.

While there have been instances in which officers at other schools have been able to intervene to protect students and staff members during crises, permanently stationing them at schools leads to problems for students, she said.

The civil rights groups’ expertise lies in their experience working on behalf of students arrested at school for small offenses that don’t threaten school safety, incidents that school administrators could have dealt with. (“Downside Seen in Rush to Hire School-Based Police,” March 13, 2013.)

Police officers in schools “are becoming disciplinarians instead of people that are there to create safe environments,” Ms. Browne Dianis said, resulting in a legion of adolescents with criminal records and disrupted educational paths.

NRA Plan Pending

The civil rights groups, with like-minded local organizations, have set up protests of the NRA plan and President Obama’s school-resource-officer proposal around the country for next week.

While the specifics of the NRA plan are unknown, the organization has set up a website and Facebook page devoted to its National School Shield plan, and it has tapped former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican, as the initiative’s national director. Mr. Hutchinson, a lawyer, was the nation’s first undersecretary for homeland security, appointed by President George W. Bush.

At a December press conference about the undertaking, Mr. Hutchinson said that “armed, trained, qualified school security personnel will be one element of that plan, but by no means the only element,” and that the decision to use such personnel should be a local one.

But he went on to call armed security a “key component” of school safety.

Mr. Hutchinson also praised President Obama’s call to add resource officers to U.S. schools, but said patrolling schools wouldn’t require a massive federal financial investment.

“Whether they’re retired police, retired military, or rescue personnel, I think there are people in every community in this country who would be happy to serve, if only someone asked them and gave them the training and certification to do so,” he said. “The National Rifle Association is the natural, obvious choice to sponsor this program.”

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Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as Civil Rights Groups: School Safety Not Dependent on Guns

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