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.