High school students demonstrate outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington during a walk-out protest over a lack of federal government action and legislation on gun violence and school shootings on March 14. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Reporter

In January, the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners voted to oppose legislation in the State House that would allow school officers in city schools to carry guns on campus during the school day. A few weeks later, it changed its mind.

Robert Helfenbein, associate dean of the Loyola University Maryland School of Education, says the reversal was made out of fear. In this post, he explains why he thinks the board reacted the way it did — and why schools need more than police with guns.

After the board’s first vote, the legislation was withdrawn by its sponsor, but was reintroduced after the reversal vote. Since then, Baltimore legislators have voted down an effort to move the bill to the General Assembly this year.

Helfenbein looks at why the notion of arming police officers on school campuses is simply a bandage that ignores real problems affecting young people. He can be reached at rhelfenbein@loyola.edu.

By Rob Helfenbein

The Baltimore City school board recently voted to support Maryland House Bill 1373, which would allow school police officers to carry guns inside schools during the school day. Despite voting unanimously on Jan. 22 to oppose this legislation, the school board reversed its decision in a vote following the Feb. 8 shooting of a school employee by a family member of a student attending the city’s Frederick Douglass High School.

Students need to feel safe at school. They need to feel welcomed and supported if they are going to learn. They need to feel that they’ve entered a place where they can grow and make mistakes, in a safe way, from which they can learn.

But instead of a thoughtful step forward, the board’s decision feels like a knee-jerk reaction to a terrible incident. While parents, communities and schools certainly need to consider how to safeguard themselves against tragedy and crisis, the real issues go much deeper.

The reality in Baltimore and other urban districts is that the neighborhoods in which many kids grow up are more dangerous than the schools they attend. In fact, for many folks, schools are considered relative places of safety for our children — and they should be.

However, there are other forms of violence at work in many urban schools. For example, a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union on school discipline citing data from the U.S. Education Department found that 14 million students in the United States attend schools with police present but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker on staff. Realities like these are exactly what parents, community members and activists have been protesting about in Annapolis.

With this lack of support for our nation’s learners, how are we teaching young people to think about conflict resolution? How are we helping them cope with trauma and grief?

Are they learning to think critically about situations and respond in mature and thoughtful ways? Are they learning at all when their schools are consistently shut down due to failing infrastructure?

Those are much more important questions, and, of course, they are much more complicated in terms of how we solve them.

Last year, I was working with a group of students in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood when the news broke nationally about the lack of heat in Baltimore schools. They laughed and rolled their eyes — not because they’re insensitive but because, for them, it’s not news. It’s their day-to-day reality.

They were wondering why it took a national outcry for anyone to care about the inequity they face on a daily basis. Some say, “But look how the community responded.” Yes, that is laudable. But the question remains: Why should a Baltimore teacher need to start a GoFundMe page to heat schools, provide snacks or purchase books for his or her students?

Sure, properly functioning HVAC and school supplies won’t keep our nation’s kids safe, but it’s all connected. When we deny our young people basic things like heat or clean, lead-free drinking water, we are already committing violence against them.

The ACLU found that “schools with police reported 3.5 times as many arrests as schools without police. As a result, students with disabilities and students of color are frequently sent into the criminal system.” The more we put schools on lockdown, the less they become places of learning, the less safe students feel and the more likely we are to fuel the school-to-prison pipeline.

Schools should be central hubs in our communities, with impacts beyond test scores. When education funding relies on property taxes, when schools don’t have heat in the winter, when we live in a society that is conditioned to disregard the suffering of others, we are facing deep-seated problems — not just for students but for entire communities.

I don’t think the solution is putting more guns in the lives of children. It might make us feel like we’re taking control of the chaos. But it will only serve as a temporary comfort, a minor distraction from the violence and disparity these youths face every day.

And, sadly, it might result in tragedy.

What will happen the first time a school police officer shoots an unarmed student? What will happen if, God forbid, a student gets his or her hands on the weapon? From my perspective, if we arm our school officers, it’s not a question of if these situations occur, it’s a matter of when.

By choosing to allow guns in our schools, we’d be putting a Band-Aid solution on a much deeper wound.