Students, parents and teachers urged the federal officials charged with preventing the next school shooting to pour more mental health resources and school support staff into the nation’s elementary and secondary schools – not more guns.
The first public forum of the federal commission on school safety, convened by President Donald Trump after the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, drew dozens of speakers from across the country to the Department of Education on Wednesday. But neither Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the commission’s chairwoman, nor the other three Cabinet secretaries appointed to the panel were in attendance.
On Tuesday, DeVos told senators the commission would not wade into the gun control debate, but panel officials said they would follow Trump’s order to examine age restrictions on some weapons.
Alessia Modjarrad, a recent graduate of a Montgomery County, Maryland, high school, criticized what she called the commission’s “complicit” stance on the role of guns in school safety.
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“I don’t want to be scared. I don’t want to think that at any moment someone with a gun could walk in and hurt us all,” Modjarrad said. “Please consider the possibilities that guns are the most important aspect of the purview of this commission.”
The speakers’ demands largely echoed the responses that liberal advocacy groups have pointed to since the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: more anti-violence programs, more mental health resources and better coordination between school and law enforcement officials in trying to identify at-risk students.
But the hearing provided a platform for voices from outside Washington who have dealt directly with violence inside and outside school buildings. They offered insight into the most divisive issues facing the commission: guns and the increased presence of law enforcement in schools.
Advocates and educators have worried that the Trump administration’s push toward “hardening schools” with weapons and law enforcement officers will worsen outcomes for minority students, who already are arrested at school at higher rates than their white peers. According to the Education Department’s most recent civil rights data, black students were 15 percent of all students in the 2015-16 school year but accounted for 31 percent of arrests or referrals to police, a disparity that had widened by 5 percentage points since 2013-14.
Amina Henderson-Redwan, a 20-year-old with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, urged the commission to keep students like her in mind. She has struggled with mental illness, was arrested at school after having an anxiety attack and had her head pushed into a chalkboard by a security guard. She lost her best friend to gun violence in February.
Henderson-Redwan said that while she appreciated Trump’s commission, she feared that it would look to solutions like arming staff and increasing law enforcement, which would exacerbate experiences like hers.
“For students like us, this is not what safety means,” Henderson-Redwan said. “Safety means to get the root causes of a student’s misbehavior.”
In Georgia, minority students are not “emotionally safe” in the presence of school police, said Marlyn Tillman, a board member of the suburban Atlanta parent group Gwinnett Stopp. In Gwinnett County public schools, she said, the district had a “contact quota” for school security officers. And she said she had personally heard troubling statements about students of color in diversity trainings with officers.
“While shootings at schools are primarily committed by white students at white schools, schools with a large black and brown population get the brunt of school police and buildings that resemble and function like prisons,” Tillman said. “There is no evidence that police make schools safer.”
But Audrae Erickson, who introduced herself only as the parent of three school-age children, asked the commission to ensure that school security officers, who sometimes have condensed schedules, are stationed in buildings five days a week so they are not “leaving our students vulnerable if a tragedy should unfold on their day off.”
In addition to full police coverage of schools, Erickson suggested measures such as school-based tip lines, school safety plans and unannounced, random backpack checks, as well as metal detector screenings.
Abbey Clements, a former teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the site of one of the most horrific school shootings in history, told the commission how she was preparing to make snowflakes for a Parent Teacher Association luncheon on Dec. 14, 2012, when she heard a crash that she thought was falling folding chairs. A gunman had shot through the school’s door – and went on to murder 20 children and six adults with a military-style assault rifle.
“I would like to make something perfectly clear: Had school employees been carrying guns at Sandy Hook school, it would not have made us safer, our children safer,” Clements said.
Clements said she and other teachers could not fathom navigating the bullets and chaos to engage a gunman.
A wide-ranging survey of nearly 400 school police officers published by Education Week this week found that 1 in 5 officers said their school was not prepared for a gunman.
“Trained, armed resource officers aren’t even proven to be effective during school shootings, and their only job is to protect,” Clements said. “This is not the movies. This is school.”