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The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 may be viewed as a watershed moment in our history, similar to Columbine in April 1999. Following both tragedies, the nation was at odds about how to prevent such shootings from happening again in the future. How do we solve America’s gun problem in schools? Despite a surge of research supporting positive and prevention-focused school discipline alternatives following Columbine, many schools and districts nonetheless doubled down on zero-tolerance discipline.
The zero-tolerance discipline paradigm, which took hold in the early 1990s, has been tied to an unprecedented spike in the use of exclusionary punishments (i.e., suspensions and expulsions). These harsh discipline measures were found to be ineffective by an American Psychological Association Task Force, which noted that out-of-school suspensions lead to lost instructional time and increased risk of school drop-out and involvement in the juvenile justice system – a destructive trajectory referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Notably, racial disparities in schools’ most draconian discipline practices have increased under zero tolerance, contributing to growing educational inequities experienced by Black youth.
In recognition of the harmful effects of this hardening approach in response to school shootings, and the critical connection between school safety and school equity, the Obama administration issued its “Dear Colleague” guidance. In taking this action, the Departments of Justice and Education jointly asserted schools’ legal obligations under federal law to apply discipline without discrimination against specific student groups. The guidance outlined asset-based actions that schools were required to take to close racial gaps and promote school safety.
Now, as our nation’s leaders continue to wrestle with how to keep our schools safe in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting, the Trump Administration’s Federal School Safety Commission (FSSC) appears to be retracing our missteps following Columbine in its recent report. In throwing its weight behind school hardening efforts, such as arming “specially selected and trained” school staff and investing in school security physical infrastructure, the FSSC has failed to heed a collaborative call to action, endorsed by more than 200 universities, school districts, national education and mental health associations, and over 2,300 individual experts, imploring the nation to soften our schools, not harden them, by promoting social-emotional health. Softening schools does not mean being soft on misbehavior and offenses; it means proactively providing universal and targeted supports for students’ “soft” social-emotional and interpersonal skills, as well as preventively intervening through threat assessment and evidence-based mental health support strategies.
Rather than equipping teachers and schools with tools for prevention and equity that can actually make our schools safer, one of the central endorsements in the FSSC final report was that schools train teachers to carry and deploy firearms. Such hardening efforts, including purchases of surveillance systems and other security technology, accomplish little in bolstering the safety of a school and, in fact, may contribute to students feeling less safe at school. Furthermore, these initiatives divert funds that could otherwise be devoted to vital school-wide prevention programming and individualized student mental and behavioral health counseling services. Instead, the FSSC report backed a series of reactive, equity-blind tactics including reducing media violence exposure and increasing access to mental health treatment, none of which were allocated funding support by the commission. Worse than retracing missteps, the FSSC appears to want to rewind the progress we have made. In issuing its recommendation to rescind the Obama administration’s Dear Colleague guidance, the FSSC effectively threatens to undo years of promising efforts by the Obama administration to investigate claims of systemic, racial bias in our schools. Despite conducting “listening sessions” on this topic, which notably took place in three politically conservative, Trump-supporting regions nationally outside of D.C., the FSSC overlooked input from experts and advocates supporting the need for federal oversight of discriminatory discipline practices.
What is needed now is a focus on evidence and translation of research to practice. We know that proactive, preventive, and equity-focused programs can make our schools safer. For example, a recent report published by RAND documents the impact of implementing restorative practices on improving school climate and reducing suspension rates in Pittsburgh Public Schools. Supporting teacher training in culturally responsive practices, social-emotional learning, effective classroom management, and restorative justice strategies promote student engagement, lowers rates of discipline referrals, and enhances wellness among students and adults at school. In addition, broader public health and prevention frameworks, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and multi-tiered systems of support, can serve as a foundation for schools to provide integrated preventive approaches and supports to meet a range of behavioral and mental health needs. Also needed is additional training for teachers in the implementation of culturally-responsive practices, such as using the Double Check Program, which has been shown to reduce disproportionate use of office referrals for students of color, while simultaneously improving classroom management and other student outcomes.
In summary, bringing more weapons into our schools will only sow greater fear and division in the very environments young people most need to feel safe and connected in order to learn. The evidence is clear that educators need evidence-based training, coaching, and tools – not firearms, surveillance, and metal detectors – to create school environments in which students feel safe and can thrive.
You can find a policy brief and podcast by the American Psychological Association on reducing weapons in school here: https://apadiv15.org/reducing-weapons-in-schools/
Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, Ph.D., M.Ed. (top right) is a Professor and the Senior Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Prior to her current appointment at U.Va., she was an Associate Professor and the Associate Chair of the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she maintains an adjunct faculty position and continues to co-direct two research centers. She holds a doctorate in developmental psychology from Cornell University and a Master’s of Education in counseling and guidance from the University of Georgia. Her primary research interests focus on the development of aggressive behavior and school-based prevention. She collaborates on research projects examining bullying and school climate; the development of aggressive and problem behaviors; effects of exposure to violence, peer victimization, and environmental stress on children; health disparities and disproportionality; children with emotional and behavioral disorders; and the design, evaluation, and implementation of evidence-based prevention programs in schools. She has led a number of federally funded randomized trials of school-based prevention programs, including Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and social-emotional learning curricula. She also has expertise in implementation science and coaching models.
Dr. Bradshaw works with the Maryland State Department of Education and several school districts to support the development and implementation of programs and policies to prevent bullying and school violence, and to foster safe and supportive learning environments. She collaborates on federally-funded research grants supported by the NIMH, NIDA, CDC, NIJ, U.S. Department of Education, and the Institute of Education Sciences. She has published over 200 peer-reviewed articles and over 30 chapters in edited volumes. She was previously the Associate Editor for the Journal of Research on Adolescence and is currently the editor of Prevention Science. She is a coeditor of the Handbook of School Mental Health (2014) and the editor of Handbook on Bullying: A Life Course Perspective (2017). She is currently working on two other practitioner-focused books – one focused on bullying and social-emotional learning, and the other focused on culturally-responsive behavior management practices.
Katrina Debnam, (bottom right) holds a joint faculty appointment in the Curry School of Education and the School of Nursing at UVA. She is a SON Roberts Scholar who studies youth violence prevention, health disparities, and school climate. As a researcher and scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health for over 13 years, she honed an interest in both a qualitative and quantitative approach to programs combatting adolescent dating abuse, adolescent violence prevention, school climate initiatives, health disparities, and faith-based programs that aim to improve young people’s lives. Debnam – who earned a psychology degree from Morgan State, an MPH from UNC-Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland – is on the editorial board of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, a member of the Society for Prevention Research, and reviews manuscripts for a host of journals, including Prevention Science, Youth & Society, and the Journal of Research on Adolescence. A member of the Maryland team that led the training and evaluation of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in more than 800 public schools, she teaches a new course on mixed methods research to both nursing and education students.