Equity & Diversity

Civil Rights Groups Sound the Alarm About Safety Plans After Parkland Shooting

By Evie Blad — March 19, 2018 5 min read
Crime scene tape runs outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in the days after the Feb. 14 fatal shooting there.
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“Knee-jerk reactions” to school safety fears after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., have created concerns for students of color and students with disabilities, a group of civil rights organizations said Monday.

It’s a pattern that civil rights advocates say they have seen after previous school shootings: Lawmakers responding to calls to “do something” propose adding more police to schools or pitch school security upgrades without being mindful of unintended consequences.

In a call with reporters Monday, leaders of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Advancement Project, the National Disability Rights Network, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund highlighted concerns they have about policies proposed after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which police say a former student entered the school with an AR-15 rifle and killed 17 people.

Some proposals pitched by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and included in the STOP School Violence Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives last week, will reassure adults while making children feel less safe at school, they said.

“We don’t need the appearance of safety,” said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project. “We need real solutions that create safe schools or address the root causes of gun violence.”

More police in schools

Racial justice and disability rights groups have long been concerned that police presence in schools can lead to overly punitive discipline and higher arrest rates for black and Hispanic students.

Sessions has called for the U.S. Department of Justice to prioritize awarding of Community Oriented Policing grants to local law enforcement agencies that plan to hire new officers to patrol schools. In addition to funding prevention programs and security upgrades, the STOP School Violence Act would provide funding that could be used to employ school-based officers. And local states, most notably Florida, have provided or discussed increased funding for school law enforcement since the Parkland shooting.

As I wrote in 2017:

In 43 states and the District of Columbia, black students are arrested at school at disproportionately high levels, an analysis of federal data by the Education Week Research Center finds. And one reason may be that black students are more likely than students in any other racial or ethnic group to attend schools with police, according to the analysis of 2013-14 civil rights data, the most recent collected by the U.S. Department of Education. In most of the jurisdictions with disproportionate arrests of black students, the disparities are significant. In 28 states, the share of arrested students who are black is at least 10 percentage points higher than their share of enrollment in schools with at least one arrest. In 10 of those states, that gap is at least 20 percentage points.

There is some debate about what drives those disparities: differences in treatment by schools, differences in student behavior, an over-reliance on police in some schools’ discipline plans, or a combination of factors.

While funding for school police often surges after shootings at suburban schools, those officers often end up in the hallways of schools in urban areas and those largely attended by students who are African-American and Latino, the civil rights groups have said. And that can take up funding that could be used for other needs, like school counselors or social workers, who could assist students and address behavior issues, they said.

The National Association of School Resource Officers, which trains school police, says officers should stay out of routine school discipline. It trains officers in issues like conflict de-escalation, and it recently added a course in student mental health and special needs.

But civil rights groups say not all school police receive such training, and many don’t know how to interact with students with disabilities or students who’ve had traumatic experiences. Only 12 states require specialized training for officers who work the school beat, according to a 2015 study by the American Institutes for Research.

And the mission of law enforcement can run counter to the mission of schools, making some students—especially those from communities that don’t trust law enforcement—to feel less safe and supported, which can affect their learning, student advocates say. They also point to examples of particularly problematic student arrests, like a South Carolina girl who was violently dragged from her desk by a school police officer after she refused to give up her cell phone in math class.

“Those communities do not trust police on the streets, so they will not trust police in the hallways,” Browne Dianis said.

Efforts to address such concerns, by limiting the ability of school police to arrest students for disciplinary issues, have come into the spotlight since Parkland.

Calls for threat assessment programs

The STOP School Violence Act and Florida’s newly passed school safety law both provide resources for things like school safety tiplines and threat assessment, the process through which schools evaluate and assist students who may pose a threat to themselves or others.

School safety experts say such work is an important, and sometimes overlooked, part of school safety. Good prevention work can help schools avoid more than shootings, they say, it can also address a range of other concerns, from bullying to suicide.

But civil rights groups stressed Monday that any plans to collect and share student data should be mindful of federal privacy laws and students’ due process rights.

“We certainly think the referral systems can be useful... but we are worried about the possible misuse of private information that follows these children, especially kids with disabilities, throughout their entire life,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network.

Security and students with disabilities

Decker is also concerned that physical security upgrades to schools could present challenges for students with physical and intellectual disabilities.

After every large school shooting, policymakers push for security upgrades to address specific concerns. After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., many schools installed shatter-resistant film on their front entrances. That was in response to concerns that the gunman was able to enter the building by shooting through the windows.

At Parkland, a fire alarm at the start of the shooting caused some confusion, provoking a scramble to secure students in classrooms. Teachers said their doors locked with keys from the outside, taking up valuable time. So some schools have discussed adding more sophisticated locks to front doors and classrooms. Some of those locks could be closed from a central location, some can limit access to certain parts of buildings in emergency situations, and some require students and staff to carry access cards to open doors.

Decker urged schools to ensure that any new security measures are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires buildings to be mindful of ease of access for people with disabilities of all forms. That means students in wheelchairs should be able to evacuate quickly and easily and students with intellectual disabilities should be able to use any systems that control access, he said.

“There is no debate that we must do all we can to keep our schools safe,” Decker said. “But we can’t let fear drive policy decisions that make matters worse.”

Related reading about school policy, safety, and Parkland:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.