Op-Ed: Political and public solutions threaten school safety

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By P.L. Thomas

After the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., political and public opinions on making schools safe are proving to be as misguided as the broader school reform movement that has failed our students.

One poll shows the public is divided on arming teachers; however, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Maureen Downey reports, even police in active shooter incidences are mostly inaccurate, especially under pressure.

Many ignore that more guns in schools will assure more gunfire — and more innocent victims. Malcolm Nance, noting his SWAT training, warns police officers are apt to shoot anyone holding a gun in crisis situations.

Political solutions prove to be equally misguided. “It is such a complex issue between mental health, between shoring up the infrastructure in our schools to make them safer, whether it is metal detectors or bullet-proof glass,” said South Carolina candidate for governor Catherine Templeton. “Most immediately, I think the school resource officers, law enforcement, and any teacher if they want to be trained should be armed to protect our children.”

However, research on security measures offers sobering facts: “There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, and little is known about the potential for unintended consequences that may accompany their adoptions,” reports the National Association of School Psychologists.

Further, “[r]esearch has found security strategies, such as the use of security guards and metal detectors, to be consistently ineffective in protecting students and to be associated with more incidents of school crime and disruption and higher levels of disorder in schools.” For example, “Surveillance cameras in schools may have the effect of simply moving misbehavior to places in schools or outside of schools that lack surveillance. Even more troubling, it’s possible that cameras may function as enticement to large-scale violence, such as in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter who mailed video images of himself to news outlets.”

Notably, increased school security measures are also racially biased, unfairly targeting black and Latinx students, even when these populations are not more violent.

Calls for armed teachers and fortified schools include identifying to any cause other than guns, such as mental health. Yet, other countries experience mental illness and all the complications associated with formal schooling, discrediting that these factors can be blamed for U.S. gun violence. Counter to popular belief, people with mental illness are less violent than the rest of the population but are far more prone to being victims of violence.

We once again face the harsh reality that the abundance of guns and easy gun access are at the source of why mass and school shootings have become commonplace in our country, but not in other countries.

But mass and school shootings have more than guns in common; most of these tragedies can be linked to angry white males who feel a sense of privilege that combined with easy access to guns results in the loss of innocent lives.

The Parkland shooter’s violent outburst also confronts us with another disturbing message since the shooter himself had gone through active shooter training and knew better how to stalk his victims. Again, implementing safety measures is unlikely to make students safer and can even put them in greater danger.

We must, however, resist the fatalism that gun control cannot work, or that there is nothing we can do. I cannot stress enough that other countries have effectively curbed gun violence and school shootings.

As researchers conclude, “instead of trying to find solutions to school shootings in the dubious arms of security technologies, or even solely through more promising public policy, society should ask deeper questions about the nature of education and schooling in American society.”

More guns mean more violence, in society and schools. Gun-free zones are one approach worth considering for in-school solutions, but that simply will not be enough.

Each mass and school shooting in the U.S. is a damning lesson we seem to refuse to learn, and as long as we focus on school policies and practices while ignoring the cancer of our larger gun culture, as well as the research on what works and what doesn’t, we are doomed to mourning more needlessly lost lives.


P.L. Thomas is a professor of education at Furman University. He taught public school in Upstate South Carolina, where he experienced a student gunman in his school.

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