Let us begin with two broad truths:
1. Schools exist to educate young people.
2. Young people do not learn well when they are not physically safe.
These truths pose a fundamental question to society: How do we create safe schools? This question presupposes a third truth that stalks America:
3. Many of our largest schools in America are not as safe as we wish they were.
What should we do about it?
When faced with the alarming reality that crime is prevalent in schools, our knee-jerk reaction is to turn to law enforcement. After all, these are often issues of law-breaking. And not only does this seem within the purview of law enforcement, but it seems beyond the scope of the schools themselves. So increased funding for security is the solution many schools have proposed and continue to pursue at increasing rates.
If crime is the problem, then increased security and aggressive policing of schools is the solution, right? Not so fast. We need to call this into question. As with almost any urgent issue, we would benefit from hearing voices that offer critiques and advocate for alternative approaches. And we’d be wise to see where possible approaches might lead us. We should ask ourselves, “Is this the type of school we want and need to have?” With that question in mind, the policing of our schools is simply not a healthy long-term or universally applicable answer. A recent article from The Atlantic points out that three of the largest five school districts in the country now have more security officers than counselors.
"Three of the largest five school districts in the country now have more security officers than counselors."
While I’m not suggesting that all intervention of this sort is wrong, this officer to counselor ratio should feel terribly wrong. There are a number of reasons it should disturb us, and these reasons help us answer the question - Why should we search for other approaches?
1. First, do law enforcement officers actually create a safe space? In one sense, yes. But their efficacy is debatable. A security officer’s calling is to work for public justice by carrying out the coercive power of the state. That’s the ideal – and ideals aren’t always met in these situations. Then there’s that word “coercive.” Even if officers and their respective systems are fulfilling their responsibility, they are still enacting coercive power. It is necessary for a just society. But it also undermines the very purpose for which it strives – a safe learning environment. So we find tension between addressing criminal behavior and healthy pedagogy. If we ask, “What is the natural thing to do?” policing might be an answer. But what we need to ask is, “Does policing students accomplish what we want?” And even if it does, there are dire unintended consequences.
2. This trend streamlines the school to prison pipeline. What message do we send to students and to communities? We already have the problem of suspending students at such a high rate that they are put on a track to drop out or worse. Now districts are choosing to make a direct connection between school and prison. Those decisions increase the likelihood that we criminalize our youth. Districts want to send the positive message of prioritizing safety, but what is often felt is coercive intrusion by outsiders into already struggling communities.
3. Power and race are interwoven in all of this. Consider that our justice system does not always function fairly. Consider that our schools are places with deep problems regarding power dynamics. The coercive power of law enforcement is not experienced the same by all people. The messages that districts send are not heard the same by everyone. The districts themselves may be rife with troublesome power inequalities. And the school to prison pipeline is much more perilous for students of color. Another way of saying all this is to say that policing does not address the more critical issues that are at play here. Because of that, policing has the potential to amplify the very problems it seeks to address. We must look more honestly at race and power if we are going to address school safety in our largest districts.
Considering these things, my original question still stands: how do we create safe schools?
Solutions must not resort to the obvious. Increasing officer presence shows a lack of creativity and courage in actually digging into the mess of power, race, and the criminalization of youth.
Solutions must also not resort to the simplistic. We need to step back and really see what results we want and what effects our approaches might have on our larger education system.
Solutions must focus on increasing positive resources rather than punitive consequences. This will help with messaging and may have more large-scale impact than we assume.
Solutions absolutely must be driven by local communities. There must be robust exigence for families directly affected.
Schools need to be safe. They need to be safe because their objective is the education of students. But the trend toward criminalizing our youth has the power to undo that whole objective – and to destroy the opportunities (or lives) of so many. It is time to explore better ways forward.
-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI. www.calvaryreformedholland.org