Opinion
School Climate & Safety Commentary

Beware the Unintended Consequences of the School Safety Movement

Expanded policing and zero tolerance could create a civil rights and public health crisis
By Thalia Gonzalez, Alexis Etow, Cesar De La Vega & Camila Cribb-Fabersunne — November 05, 2018 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

Over the past year, students and families across the country have held vigils, hosted rallies, and walked out of school to call attention to gun violence and school safety. Yet, federal and local officials continue to promote ineffective, reactive solutions to safety—such as increasing the presence of school police and security, arming teachers and staff, and removing critical civil rights protections for students through the overreliance on exclusionary school discipline practices.

As policymakers grapple with what it means for schools to be safe, students have made one thing crystal clear: The solution does not lie in increasing punitive discipline practices or criminalization of their campuses.

In March, the Government Accountability Office released an analysis that detailed how Black children continue to be pushed out of classrooms and deprived of academic opportunities. Not only did it find that Black students experience all forms of punishment in schools at higher rates than their white peers, but that these disparities are not isolated to one type of school nor only present in middle and high school. Starting as early as prekindergarten, Black students face harsher treatment, placing them at risk for far-reaching negative consequences. Such consequences not only set students up for academic failure and poorer education outcomes, but also place them at greater risk of entering the school-to-prison pipeline and limit their chances at overcoming other social determinants that can threaten their future health and prosperity.

The use of exclusionary discipline practices can transform schools from spaces of healthy development and growth to environments that compound stress, foster mistrust, and further students’ feelings of fear, isolation, and helplessness. Research suggests that what keeps schools safe is not teachers carrying guns or young people being placed in seclusion, but instead learning environments characterized by patience, understanding, and empathy.

If school safety becomes a pretext for expanded policing and a return to zero-tolerance policies, our children will simultaneously face a civil rights and public health crisis.

The same students who face harsher punishment and loss of critical learning opportunities, are also disproportionately impacted by childhood adversity and toxic stress, both of which are predictors for poor health outcomes in adulthood. Childhood adversity and trauma hits children of color the hardest, with 61 percent of Black children and 51 of Hispanic children reporting at least one adverse childhood experience, compared with 40 percent of white children. ACEs and other traumas impede students’ ability to focus, learn, and even regulate their emotions. For students who experience trauma and childhood adversity, their behaviors are often misunderstood or mislabeled. This misunderstood behavior places them at heightened risk for harsh punishments, including suspensions, expulsions, and use of force by school resource officers.

What keeps schools safe is not teachers carrying guns or young people being placed in seclusion, but instead learning environments characterized by patience, understanding, and empathy."

Rather than continuing to punish our most marginalized students and deepening their health inequities, political attention must turn to ensuring that schools keep our children in the classroom and focus on what is important for students: learning—and the school conditions that support it.

The good news is we are not starting from scratch. While there is no single solution to simultaneously address school safety and racial disparities, many districts in states across the country have already moved towards strengthening their school communities. Educators have sought to close the discipline gap and build students’ resilience to ACEs and toxic stress by implementing practices and policies including restorative justice, social-emotional learning, and trauma-informed discipline. And they’ve seen positive results. For example, Ed White Middle School in San Antonio—the first school in Texas to pilot restorative justice in 2012—successfully increased attendance and decreased incidences of bullying within two years of implementing restorative practices. Similarly, Chicago Public Schools implemented a comprehensive strategy focused on evidence-based targeted interventions to address the root causes of students’ behaviors, including trauma. Since the 2014-15 school year, the district used trauma-focused groups, targeted skill-building, and restorative responses to repair relationships to help the most at-risk students excel, while keeping them in the classrooms. In 2016, the district reported that since implementing these reforms, expulsions decreased by 57 percent and out-of-school suspensions by 65 percent. Police calls for school-based behaviors also dropped by 19 percent.

Such approaches have been singled out by national education organizations including the National Education Association and the School Superintendents Association as promising interventions to proactively help build school connectedness. As research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has well documented, school connectedness is a critical protective factor for children’s health and education.

This work is not limited to individual school and community leaders. There are policy opportunities at the federal and state level, too. The Every Student Succeeds Act has opened the door for states to support students’ health and well-being in several important ways. First, the law expands measures for evaluating school success. States can now use “school climate and safety,” for example, as an indicator of success. To date, 24 states have elected to use school climate data for accountability or improvement purposes in their ESSA plans, according to a Learning Policy Institute analysis.

ESSA also requires education plans from each state and local jurisdiction to describe how they will support efforts to reduce overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom. Moreover, ESSA provides funding to advance efforts to address school climate issues, including the implementation of school-based restorative justice and mental-health and counseling services, as well as professional-development opportunities for school staff to build skills that promote a healthy school environment.

As we continue to honor the lives cut short by school shootings, we must not allow the banner of “school safety” to eclipse the contemporary reality that many students face. Decades of data have shown that exclusionary practices do not make schools safer. Instead, they create racial disparities that threaten the health and well-being of young people, creating collateral consequences that follow them into adulthood. As the voices of this new wave of young activists call for change, we must ensure that inclusion is central to the conversation.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as The Unintended Consequences of ‘School Safety’

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
The Fall K-3 Classroom: What the data imply about composition, challenges and opportunities
The data tracking learning loss among the nation’s schoolchildren confirms that things are bad and getting worse. The data also tells another story — one with serious implications for the hoped for learning recovery initiatives
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
Student Well-Being Online Summit Student Mental Health
Attend this summit to learn what the data tells us about student mental health, what schools can do, and best practices to support students.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety What the Research Says 'High-Surveillance' Schools Lead to More Suspensions, Lower Achievement
Cameras, drug sweeps, and other surveillance increase exclusionary discipline, regardless of actual student misbehavior, new research finds.
5 min read
New research suggests such surveillance systems may increase discipline disparities.
Motortion/iStock/Getty
School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center Rising Numbers of Educators Say Pandemic Is Now Blown Out of Proportion, Survey Shows
An EdWeek Research Center survey shows that nearly 3 of every 10 educators believe the pandemic is no longer a real threat to schools.
4 min read
A sign that reads "SOCIAL DISTANCE MAINTAIN 6 FT" was posted on a student locker at a school in Baldwin, N.Y., at the beginning of the school year. But a new survey shows educators' concerns about the pandemic are declining.
A sign that reads "SOCIAL DISTANCE MAINTAIN 6 FT" was posted on a student locker at a school in Baldwin, N.Y., at the beginning of the school year. But a new survey shows educators' concerns about the pandemic are declining.<br/>
Mark Lennihan/AP
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School Climate & Safety Sponsor
Putting safety first: COVID-19 testing in schools
Are schools ready to offer a post-pandemic place to learn?
Content provided by BD
School Climate & Safety How Biden's New Actions on Guns Could Affect Students and Schools
President Joe Biden announced steps to prevent gun violence through executive action and a push for state and federal legislation.
5 min read
High school students rally at the Capitol in Washington on Feb. 21 in support of those affected at the Parkland High School shooting in Florida.
High school students rally at the U.S. Capitol in February 2018, three days after a former student shot and killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla.<br/>
J. Scott Applewhite/AP