Columbine High in 1999. Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. Stoneman Douglas High in 2018.
For more than 20 years, some of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings triggered a stock response from the federal government: more funding for law enforcement presence in schools.
Across Democratic and Republican administrations, hundreds of millions of dollars have been devoted to hiring more school resource officers.
But the school shootings haven’t stopped. More than 30 school shootings have already occurred this year.
Now, a group of congressional Democrats is asking three key federal agencies to rethink their traditional approach to preventing violence and devote more resources to helping students in its aftermath.
For too long, the federal government has focused its violence prevention efforts on ramping up law enforcement presence on school campuses “under the false premise that increased police presence will keep our children and communities safe,” the Democrats wrote in a letter to the heads of the departments of Education, Justice and Health and Human Services.
Arguing that “the lack of comprehensive, holistic and trauma-informed services in schools also falls hardest on students of color and students with disabilities who are likelier to attend schools without adequate resources and support,” the lawmakers urged the agencies to develop plans to better meet the emotional, health and safety needs of the students impacted by violence.
A 2021 Center for Public Integrity investigation revealed that the police action falls hardest on those students. Our analysis of U.S. Department of Education data found that schools referred Black students and students with disabilities to law enforcement at nearly twice their share of the population.
A referral, which happens when a school employee reports a student to any law enforcement agency or officer, does not automatically lead to an arrest.
The lawmakers also requested a review of gun violence prevention strategies used in schools.
“Armed officers in schools are, at best, an inadequate response to violence that has already occurred, not a prevention strategy,” the letter read.
Researchers have not found proof that law enforcement presence in schools prevents school shootings or gun-related incidents.
“We don’t know the effectiveness of [school resource officers] in preventing much of anything because we’re not good at measuring prevention,” said Sheldon Greenberg, professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.
A study published last month in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that heightened security in schools can drive up suspensions and lower math test scores and the number of children attending college.
In the wake of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a law designed to curb violence in schools.
On top of $300 million for school safety, the law will provide funding to expand mental health and supportive services in schools, including early identification and intervention programs and school-based mental health and wrap-around services.
For the current fiscal year, the Biden administration has also requested more money for the Community Oriented Policing Services in Schools Programs, which has funded the hiring of thousands of school resource officers.
The nation says it values safe and healthy schools, Greenberg said, but school officials often struggle to describe what that means.
“They almost always come back to describing it in terms of an absence of negatives,” he said. “‘Well, we haven’t had that many students arrested by [school resource officers] in the last two years.’ That’s great and an important indicator, but that doesn’t tell me that the school is safe or healthy.”
In fact, the presence of school resource officers increases the incidence of out-of-school suspension, expulsion, police referral and arrest, with Black students, male students and students with disabilities more likely to suffer the consequences than their peers, research from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University shows.
Since the Uvalde shooting, some lawmakers and governors have pushed for money to hire yet more officers and fortify campuses. Others have focused their attention on bills that would strengthen gun laws and support for mental health services.
“Whenever we have a problem, we look for quick-fix solutions,” said Greenberg of Johns Hopkins. “Developing a safe and healthy school is a long-term effort. It’s a commitment.”
In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has homed in on gun safety laws, signing more than a dozen during the latest legislative sessions. He also bought ads in Texas newspapers criticizing the state’s gun laws.
The Uvalde gunman bought two AR-15-style rifles days after he turned 18, the legal purchasing age in Texas.
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott announced $105 million in school safety initiatives. About half of that money was designated for bullet-resistant shields for officers and $17.1 million was for the districts to invest in silent panic-alert technology. Abbott this week appointed a former U.S. Secret Service agent as the state’s first chief of school safety and security.
An investigative report from the Texas House of Representatives showed that almost 400 local, state and federal officers waited in hallways or outside the school for more than an hour before breaching classrooms and killing the gunman. By then, he had already killed 19 students and two teachers.
During a public event hosted by the Texas Tribune last month, Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was booed after saying that the best way to prevent school shootings is to get more officers on campuses.
“In the American psyche, we tend to view the police as the solution to all sorts of social problems, one of them being school violence,” said Ben Fisher, an associate professor of civil society and community studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“That’s often an ineffective and harmful investment,” he said, “but we keep doing it for some reason.”
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