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After Sandy Hook, 'zero-tolerance' policies are making schools less safe

School police
REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
Armed security and teachers are the logical extension of the systematic criminalization of public schools that has been policy and practice for years. There is no clear evidence such measures make schools safer.
James Densley
Photo by Amber Procaccini
James Densley

The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in December brought the issue of school security into the national spotlight. NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre called for armed guards in every school. Civilian teachers from 15 states signed up for armed teacher training. And schools across the country began cracking down on supposedly troublesome behaviors, from making a “gun out of Lego” to playing “cops and robbers” in the playground. Heightened sensitivity following Sandy Hook and now a food fight at South High School in Minneapolis — which escalated into a riot involving hundreds of students — has renewed debate over “zero tolerance” in schools. The question is why do we always “get tough” and reach for our guns when school crime and violence has been decreasing nationally for two decades?

I come at this issue from a unique perspective. I’m a professor of criminal justice who teaches courses on violence, including school violence, to active and aspiring Minnesota peace officers. But I previously taught special education in the New York City public schools, which have their own dedicated police force and pioneered many of the new and harsher disciplinary practices that punctuate today’s classrooms: metal detectors, random searches, drug-sniffing dogs, radio frequency monitors, surveillance cameras, “school resource officers.” Every day my students and I would be greeted at the school gates by a barrage of security guards and airport-style scanners. It was a different sort of education.

Armed security and teachers are the logical extension of the systematic criminalization of public schools that has been policy and practice for years. There is no clear evidence such measures make schools safer. Some studies have found a decrease in violence in schools with in-house police officers, while others have found no relationship at all.

Student problems increase, causes go unaddressed

Part of the problem is that police officers are trained in how to deal with conflict, not how to counsel youth and defuse typical adolescent drama. Student problems, in turn, are redefined as criminal issues requiring a criminal justice response. And student problems increase because suspension, expulsion, arrest, etc., fail to address the underlying social and psychological causes of student misbehavior.

Students who have strong school attachments, involvements, commitments and beliefs do better in school. But as I observed firsthand in New York, students won’t speak to appropriate adults if their problems involve criminal activity (for example, drug use) for fear they will be punished under the rubric of zero tolerance. In other words, zero tolerance alienates children from statistically the safest place for them to be — school.

In the 2010 book, "Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear," moreover, sociologist Aaron Kupchik finds, “the presence of police in schools is unlikely to prevent another school shooting and the potential for oppression of students — especially poor and racial/ethnic minority youth — is a more realistic and common threat than Columbine.”

This is especially poignant given some students and parents of Somali descent are now speaking out against excessive use of police force during the melee at South High School and a failure on behalf of school administrators to calm the racial tensions that precipitated the incident. During the fight at South it was noted that students used “anything they could get their hands on.” God only knows what would have happened if the teachers had been armed.

More downsides to teachers toting guns

Which brings me to my final point. If students can’t relate to cops in the corridors, they certainly won’t respond to teachers toting pistols in the classroom. Further, it takes months to learn to circumvent the confrontational tension and fear police experience in a gunfight, say firearms instructors I work with. Most people in life-or-death situations freeze or shut down entirely. Teachers are as poorly equipped to take down body-armor wearing bad guys as police officers are to differentiate instruction based on student readiness, interest and learning profile.

The chances that an armed educator will shoot a child by accident are high. The chances of arriving officers’ mistakenly shooting a teacher because he or she is seen with a weapon in the aftermath of a shooting incident are higher.

Law enforcement can’t do much to prevent another Sandy Hook, although they may, in a few instances, be able to reduce its severity. If the ultimate goal is prevention, then focusing on students’ well-being rather than suppression in schools is a step in the right direction.

James Densley is an assistant professor in the School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University. He is the author of "How Gangs Work: An Ethnography of Youth Violence" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Densley holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford.

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Comments (3)

The incident at South High is an excellent example.

First, note that the "brawling" went on for 15-20 minutes until the police arrived, yet not a single participant was injured (except during the subsequent police macing). This suggests that the motivation for the fighting was less the intent to injure, and more symbolic, as an expression of frustration or grievance. As the author notes, it is chilling to contemplate how the injury (mortality) level might have deviated from zero, had the event occurred in the context of the normalizing of gun-carry (by students or teachers/staff) that the NRA advocates.

Second, note that the characterization of the event in all of the media (in the author's borrowed words, a "riot involving hundreds of students," a "melee") came from the police. According to a number of kids present (including my daughter), there were 30-40 students fighting and several hundred - who were there for lunch - watching the fighting, milling, jockeying. None of the kids I talked to felt frightened until the police arrived, at which time, in their words, "terror" ensued in the form of a cordon, mace in the air, and an overall sense of undiscerning force. The more that gun-carry is normalized, the more the police will adopt methods that minimize risk to their number - i.e., the uniform response to any disturbance will be "shock and awe." The police capacity to distinguish between 40 kids acting out their frustrations and the rest milling in curiousity, vs. "hundreds of students rioting" disappears, and the implacable deployment of the latest paramilitary hardware becomes the norm.

This is a good, informed

This is a good, informed statement and analysis of our insistence on "arming" our schools, and the reasoned conclusion that it doesn't work, and won't work. (Said someone who spent her life in classrooms, and was on a number of occasions really glad that nobody around had a gun.)

Schools as preparation for jail

I freely admit, I'm a gun toting (but not concealing and carrying) Democrat.

However, while I feel that anti-gun groups and individuals have gone too far, I also agree that the pro-gun groups and individuals have gone too far.

This article highlights what everyone should be looking for--addressing the causes of violence rather than suppressing the symptoms. Turning schools into prisons and treating children as prisoners enforces a view, especially in not-so-logical teenagers, that they're criminals. So, if people see you as a criminal, why not act like one? Dumb attitude, yes. But so is the attitude that we ought to put up barbed wire fences around our schools and frisk the students inside in case they might be criminals rather than prevent violence and crime and provide a path away from criminalistic behavior. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of creating such an atmosphere. Liberals want to coddle the kids and make sure no harm ever ever ever comes to them. While conservatives want to make sure those hoodlums get punished for even thinking about being a not-so-logical teenager. Both combine to result in schools that simply prepare (at least some) students for jail.

The reality is, sometimes bad things happen. We have to deal with this, for sure, but you can't bubble wrap kids in case bad things happen and you can't punish all of them in case one might make bad things happen. Regardless of the intentions, the result is resent and fear. That's not a good result.