Hey feds, let’s really talk about school safety

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After a year filled with school shooting tragedies, the Federal Commission on School Safety produced a report recommending a wide array of ideas to make our schools safer—some of which the AFT has championed for years. Unfortunately, the Dec. 18 “Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety” doesn’t root out the real causes of gun violence: too many guns and not enough mental health services.

Sadly, the Trump administration has no coherent plan to address this epidemic.

Schools need fewer guns and more mental health services

“But most curious and disappointing is the report’s use of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to push an anti-civil rights agenda that won’t keep schools safe,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “The report suggests rolling back Obama-era school discipline guidance that was intended to help prevent the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of students of color, students with disabilities and LGBTQ youth—under the guise of making schools safer.”

The shooter at Stoneman Douglas had in fact been disciplined, expelled and reported to police. Rescinding the discipline guidance, which the Trump administration may do as early as Dec. 21, won’t prevent school shootings.

The right responses to guns

In a resolution passed earlier this year by delegates to the AFT convention, our members called for commonsense solutions to the nation’s gun violence. We resolved to recommit ourselves to measures that will stop shootings at schools and colleges, including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, universal background checks and other vetting before gun purchases, federal research on gun-related deaths, and the rejection of counterproductive ideas like arming faculty and staff.

The AFT also resolved to listen to members and students on school safety. After the massacre of 26 students and school staff in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, AFT members who work in school safety positions offered reality-based recommendations for how to secure campuses. These included:

  • Prevention and mitigation. School safety committees must include union representatives to make sure employees’ expertise is tapped. Some of our members have won grants for classroom door locks that can be secured from inside, plus video cameras and electronic locks for outer entrances.
  • Preparedness. Because the vast majority of emergencies requiring lockdowns happen outside of school buildings, schools need two kinds of lockdowns: partial and complete. A partial lockdown brings everyone inside and instruction continues. A complete lockdown is what happened in Newtown and Stoneman Douglas, with school employees working quickly to make sure children are tucked out of sight.
  • Response. During breaks in the school calendar when children aren’t in class, some schools invite police officers onto campus for active shooter trainings, where they learn the building layouts and practice stopping an assault.

The right ways to discipline kids

As to discipline, our members are the experts in using such proven models as counseling, restorative justice and in-school suspension, which keep students learning and out of trouble. In its resolutions on discipline, the AFT has championed restorative justice programs; has promoted the roles school support staff play in maintaining safe and orderly schools; and, since 1992, has advocated for conflict mediation, peer mediation and other ways to eliminate violence.

Members of the Cleveland Teachers Union, the Volusia (Fla.) Educational Support Association and the California Federation of Teachers, for example, run in-school suspension classrooms that give kids a chance to reflect on their behavior and catch up with schoolwork in a supervised setting.

In 2017, the AFT passed a resolution calling for more restorative justice programs, wraparound services and better access to mentoring and counseling. It also called for, among other things, an end to zero-tolerance policies, more culturally inclusive curricula, more support staff and more professional development in such techniques as trauma-informed practices and positive behavior interventions.

The commission’s report, chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, gets a few other things wrong. First, it does not contain a single proposal for funding these initiatives. Also, the commission appears to punt on the question of arming teachers, rather than repudiating this lunatic idea opposed by parents, students and teachers but continually advocated by DeVos. The report fails to recommend age restrictions on firearms, and appears more concerned with the firearms and security industries than with children.

“The Trump administration missed an opportunity to bring the country together” around school safety, Weingarten says. “Parents, students and educators want schools to be safe. That requires fair discipline policies, but also a real investment in meaningful mental health supports and other key recommendations in the report, plus the advancement of commonsense gun safety reforms to help curb the gun violence epidemic in our country.”

[Annette Licitra]

Find classroom resources on restorative practices and mental health awareness on Share My Lesson.