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Don’t get trigger happy with our schools

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When the National Rifle Association announced that it would unveil a plan in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary school tragedy last December, there were some who predicted that, at last, the trigger-happy set would get real about gun safety. I was not one of them.

Still, when the NRA finally revealed its grand idea on April 2, the magnitude of its absurdity made me gasp in horror! Surely, this was a spoof, a spoof of an Onion spoof of how the NRA would react to an event that was caused by the availability of lots of guns and ammo. But, no. It was all too real, and the “plan” has now consumed many column inches and air time in news media and has set one parameter on the far right for debate about gun control and school safety.

The NRA calls its solution the National School Shield, and it proposes putting more guns in schools-in the hands of police, security guards or simply the school staff. How it would be paid for wasn’t explained, but no doubt supporters of this silver-bullet strategy would find ways to trim school funding. Who needs guidance counselors? Or sports programs?

While it’s unlikely the Shield is ever going to become national policy, the truth is that police-armed and unarmed–are an ever-growing presence in our public schools. And it is often to the detriment, not the benefit, of students and the creation of a safe learning environment. The NRA and its Second Amendment cultists may be promoting armed policing in schools as a way to protect students, but the reality is that increased policing has meant a soaring rate of student detentions, fines and arrests in states around the country.

Take New York City’s school police force, put under the control of the NYPD by Rudy Giuliani. It is larger than the police departments of many small cities, with about 5,000 officers. They have the power to arrest, and they use it vigorously. Data analyzed by the NY Civil Liberties Union for the 2011 school year showed that school police arrested or gave tickets to 14 students a day, and about 94 percent were black or Latino, and 75 percent were male.

Far from making these students feel safe, police in many school districts represent an obstacle to staying in school and out of the juvenile justice system. It’s not just in New York. In Los Angeles, the Community Rights Campaign has been organizing to halt indiscriminate ticketing of students for truancy and other minor violations. In a three-year period, the LA school police issued more than 33,000 tickets requiring an appearance in court and a fine of over $200. And as in New York, more than 90 percent of students snared by police are Latino or black. Latinos are 64 percent and blacks 9 percent of all LA public school students, while whites are 15 percent and Asians 11 percent.

Now, it’s important to be clear about race and class when talking about policing and school safety, even if some people are squeamish about such things. Sandy Hook Elementary was a predominantly white public school in an extremely affluent, primarily white community. And the kind of headline-grabbing school shootings that seem like regular occurrences over the last couple of decades actually are most likely to occur in such white, middle-class or affluent communities, and perpetrated by young, disaffected white males. Public school shootings, like Columbine, were the products of very disturbed, alienated white boys in the main. In fact, there never has been a mass shooting at a public school in a large city. So why put more armed police in those schools?

Policing in our schools, especially in communities with large black and Latino populations, is part of the larger problem of an education system whose failures put kids at risk of falling into the criminal justice system. It’s a component of what education activists and student advocates call the school-to-prison pipeline. So when the NRA, and even well-meaning liberals like Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) call for more cops in our schools, think of the Trojan horse. The reality is that more guns in schools, no matter who is wielding them, means more danger for all and the further degradation of public education.

Annette Fuentes is an investigative journalist and author of Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse (Verso 2011). She also co-authored, with Barbara Ehrenreich, the now classic, Women in the Global Factory (1983). Fuentes has written regularly on health and social policy for The New York Times,The Nation, the Village Voice, The Progressive, The Huffington Post, and In These Times, where she was a contributing editor. She was also on the faculty of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. Fuentes was the health and hospitals reporter at the New York Daily News, an assistant editor for op-eds at Newsday, the Metro editor at the Village Voice, and an editorial writer and columnist at El Diario/La Prensa, New York City’s largest Spanish-language daily newspaper, Fuentes was also the editor of Crítica: A Journal of Puerto Rican Policy and Politics; City Limits, a monthly covering housing and community development; managing editor of New American Media; and a writer for The Bay Citizen. She can be reached at afuentes123@gmail.com.



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