The NRA is in the headlines again, promoting “School Safety Shield,” its initiative to get more guns in schools in response to the Newtown shooting. The plan calls for arming select school personnel, who would receive 40-60 hours of training and also undergo background checks to qualify.
In Mississippi, they weren’t waiting for the NRA. Legislators have been working on a proposal to spend $7.5 million on armed guards in that state’s schools and to allow school staff to carry concealed weapons, and are hammering out a final version of the bill now.
"If they're not going to abide by the law and they're going to bring guns in the school and shoot our children and our teachers then I think somebody ought to be shooting back at them," said Senator Joey Fillingane, one of the bill’s co-authors.
But a group of civil rights advocates in the state is speaking out against the legislation, saying that armed guards in school don’t make everybody feel safer, and that they might actually add to the risk for students – particularly students of color, who are the majority in many of the state’s schools. The threat these advocates see is not that of a random shooter, but of the harsh daily disciplinary environment in schools that have some of the lowest graduation rates in the nation.
“Young people are being criminalized for minor school offenses like talking in class or being smart with the teacher,” says Nsombi Lambright, director of resource development and communications for One Voice, a civil rights advocacy group based in Mississippi. "When you add an armed police officer or security guard into the situation, it gets even more dangerous. These people treat students like criminals."
Lambright says that her organization and others working to block the proposed legislation are concerned about what she calls “the school-to-prison pipeline.” That alleged pipeline was the subject of a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice against the city of Meridian, Mississippi, and other government entities last fall. From the DOJ press release on the suit:
The complaint alleges that the defendants help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline in which the rights of children in Meridian are repeatedly and routinely violated. As a result, children in Meridian have been systematically incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses, including school disciplinary infractions, and are punished disproportionately without due process of law. The students most affected by this system are African-American children and children with disabilities.
Practices detailed in the suit include handcuffing, arresting, and incarcerating students for days at a time without probable cause hearings, as well as not informing children of their Miranda rights or offering them "meaningful representation by an attorney."
The Meridian school district recently agreed to a consent decree that would, among other things, prohibit "school officials from using law enforcement to deal with behavior that can be safely and appropriately handled under school disciplinary procedures."
Lambright says that already, beleaguered teachers in overcrowded classrooms often turn to guards or "school resource officers" to resolve classroom disputes if they are available. Things can escalate quickly when such officers get involved, she says, with minor incidents ending in arrests on charges such as disorderly conduct. "That’s how students get their first introduction to the criminal justice system," she says. And Lambright thinks the new legislation could make things even worse.
"We are very concerned about the safety of our students," says Lambright. "We believe adding more guards without proper training would actually be more unsafe. And we haven’t heard much about training."
Lambright directed me to a report called “Handcuffs on Success" [PDF] from the ACLU and the Mississippi NAACP, which details what it calls "an extreme school discipline crisis":
Across the state, public schools are hindering the success of children and youth by employing harsh and destructive disciplinary practices. These practices not only exclude students from the classroom thereby reducing learning opportunities, but even worse, Mississippi’s children are being trapped in a pipeline to prison, too often for the most trivial misbehaviors. Whether it is a dress code violation, profane language, or a schoolyard scuffle, young people are being herded into juvenile detention centers and into the revolving door of the criminal justice system. Sadly, none of this is shocking. After all, the State’s harsh approach to discipline still allows corporal punishment. In fact, as one of only 19 states left that permit the paddling of students in public schools, Mississippi has the highest percentage of students being beaten by educators.
The report is illustrated with numerous anecdotes, like the one about the school in Jackson where students were handcuffed to a metal railing in the gym for not wearing belts, or the case of the five-year-old black boy who was driven home locked in the back seat of a police car for wearing shoes that did not conform to the school dress code.
Lambright and her fellow advocates believe that instead of funding an armed guard program, the legislature should be putting money into a more progressive and holistic approach to school discipline, one that moves away from an emphasis on "zero tolerance," corporal punishment, expulsion, and incarceration. From “Handcuffs on Success”:
Every dollar that is currently being spent on police, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras is a dollar that could be used for teachers, guidance counselors, and school psychologists.
But all of those things are a lot more complicated than more guns.