Sandy Hook and the Public Response
By: Aaron Kupchik, Ph.D.
When Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school, as well as killing his mother and himself, he brought the issue of school security into the national spotlight. Perhaps the most visible immediate response to the Newtown killings centered on the issue of gun control. Several politicians immediately began to promote the idea of greater restrictions on guns and ammunition, an issue which seemed to have been on the back burner since Obama’s first campaign for President. Some more conservative, “pro-gun” Democrats, such as Pennsylvania’s Senator Bob Casey, voiced support for such restrictions for the first time, spurring optimism among gun control advocates. Of course, it remains to be seen whether substantial gun control will actually happen; given the power of the NRA as a lobbying force, the reluctance of many Republicans to compromise on the issue, and the overall popularity of firearms among the general public, it is easy to imagine a stalemate on this issue.
About one week after the Newtown incident, NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre broke the group’s silence to announce a proposal for preventing future school shootings: a police officer or armed guard in each school across the U.S. Mr. LaPierre suggested that in addition to more police officers, guards could be recruited from the pools of retired police officers and military personnel, and trained by NRA representatives. This is about what one should expect from the NRA: a response that denies any problem with the easy access to guns, deflects attention away from debate over gun control, and suggests that more guns are part of the solution.
Here is where the public response gets interesting; politicians, most news media outlets, and others largely derided the NRA proposal. Some, like Obama, dismissed the proposal with “skepticism” (Mason 2012), while others, like Michael Bloomberg, called it “shameful.” New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn went so far as to call LaPierre’s statements “…some of the most stupid, asinine, insensitive, ridiculous comments I have ever heard made in the public arena..." (Colvin 2012). Even the conservative, Murdoch-owned, New York Post’s front cover the following day pictured LaPierre with the following text: “GUN NUT! NRA Loon in Bizarre Rant Over Newtown.”
Yet LaPierre’s proposal is not so far off from the school policies that have proliferated across the U.S. over the past twenty years. With no dissent or even serious discussion from either political party, schools have been adding police officers, security guards, surveillance cameras, zero tolerance policies, drug-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, and other criminal-justice oriented practices to public schools across social strata. Apparently, Americans have no objection to the massive infusion of armed officers into schools, or to the fact that 60% of all public high schools conducted random searches for drugs using drug-sniffing dogs in the 2009-2010 school year (Robers et al. 2012), yet they object to LaPierre’s suggestion that we should continue to follow this path of merging school and police practices.
The fact that New York City politicians and news outlets seemed so offended by the NRA’s position is especially ironic, since New York City public schools have led the movement toward the criminalization of schools. New York City schools have their own dedicated police force, a division of the NYPD called the NYPD School Security Division, with over 5,000 members. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008 the only cities in the U.S. with a police force that large are New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Houston (Reaves 2011). These officers do not carry guns, but they work closely with other NYPD officers who do, and they can make arrests. Moreover, a growing number of studies find that these NYPD School Safety Agents can often be abusive to students as they implement a rigid law-and-order policing mentality (see Mukherjee 2007; Nolan 2011). New York City thus sees fit to rigorously enforce austere policing practices in its schools, treating students as criminals rather than young citizens (see Nolan 2011), yet top City officials deride a proposal by the NRA that calls for less intense policing than they currently use.
To be clear, I agree that the NRA is way off-base here. As an empirical researcher, I find it offensive that such a high profile agency feels free to suggest national policy without any apparent consideration of evidence about the potential effects. But I also think that our current practices, including those used throughout the U.S. but especially in police-intensive New York City schools, are harmful to students. Rather than criticizing the NRA alone for its irresponsible proposal, school districts and local governments ought to take this as an opportunity to revisit the counter-productive school discipline and security practices they already have in place.
In my 2010 book, Homeroom Security: School discipline in an age of fear, I look at how high school students are policed and punished on school grounds. Graduate students and I spent time in four high schools, located in two states, shadowing police officers and observing interactions as students were punished for misbehavior. I argue that our current practices are problematic for several reasons; one is that schools’ use of police officers influences the school climate in negative ways.
Each school I studied had a full-time police officer on campus. These officers are hired, trained, and supervised by the local police force, thus they report to a commanding officer, not the school administrator. They wear police uniforms, sometimes even with bullet-proof vests, and carry firearms. These officers are usually called “school resource officers,” or SROs. In many ways I was impressed by the SROs I met; each was a caring adult who took the assignment in hopes of helping children. Most of them invested time and effort in mentoring youth, making themselves available to talk if students needed a friendly adult’s ear. Unfortunately, though, they have no training in adolescent development, and are poorly equipped for this role. They are trained in how to deal with conflict, not how to defuse a situation by listening to confused adolescents. Students cannot speak to them in confidence if their problems involve any sort of criminal act such as underage drinking or drug use.
The result is that student problems are redefined as criminal issues rather than social or counseling issues. A student who might be abused at home receives no counseling, though her parents are now subject to arrest; a student who displays irrational behavior is treated as potentially violent (and in need of police surveillance) rather than a candidate for mental health screening; and so on. One problem with this shift in school social climate is that the underlying causes of student misbehavior go unaddressed, since the school’s focus is instead on policing and school rule enforcement. This allows students’ problems to grow without intervention, especially when they face consequences such as suspension, expulsion, or arrest, which move them farther away from caring adults and opportunities for success.
A second problem is that it can alienate students from the school. Research clearly shows that schools can effectively reduce the risk of student misbehavior by promoting positive school social climates, where students feel bonds to others at the school and believe that they are an important part of the school. Introducing police and other criminal-justice oriented security practices into the school can unravel such a climate, making students feel like suspects instead of students, passive subjects of rules rather than citizens with agency. As a result, these security strategies can actually undermine, not reinforce, school security.
Proponents of adding more police and armed guards to schools offer emotional arguments rather than evidence, claiming that we owe it to our children to do everything possible to keep them safe. This argument ignores the harm we can do by adding more police and security guards, presuming that the only drawback is the financial cost of additional school employees.
We would be much better served, and our children better protected, if we remember that schools are, statistically, the safest place for children to be. Despite the horror of what happened at Newtown, school deaths are still very rare. And the evidence suggests that there are better ways to keep children safe, such as improving mental health services available to them, finding alternatives to school suspension and arrest, and improving teachers’ training in classroom management. Though none of these school-based strategies would have helped Adam Lanza or prevented his rampage, since he was no longer a member of the school community he attacked, they would help others. And they might undo some of the harmful practices that have come to prominence over the past two decades.
Colvin, Jill. 2012. “Bloomberg Calls NRA's Proposal to Put Armed Guards in Schools 'Shameful'”. December 21, DNAinfo.com: http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20121221/new-york-city/bloomberg-calls-nras-proposal-put-armed-guards-schools-shameful#ixzz2GvQ0WkeD
Kupchik, Aaron. 2010. Homeroom Security: School discipline in an age of fear. NY: NYU Press.
Mason, Jeff. 2012. “Obama skeptical of NRA proposal to put more guns in schools.” Reuters, December 30.
Mukherjee, Elora. 2007. Criminalizing the Classroom: The over-policing of New York City schools. NY: New York Civil Liberties Union.
Nolan, Kathleen. 2011. Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Reaves, Brian. 2011. Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, 2008. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
Robers, Simone, Jijun Zhang, Jennifer Truman, and Thomas D. Snyder. 2012. Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2011. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Justice.
Aaron Kupchik is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the Univer-sity of Delaware. His research focuses on the punishment of youth in schools, courts, and correctional facili-ties. He has published four books, including Homeroom Security: School discipline in an age of fear (NYU Press, 2010), and Judging Juveniles: Prosecuting adolescents in adult and juvenile courts (NYU Press, 2006), winner of the 2007 American Society of Criminology Michael J. Hindelang Book Award.
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