AT THE SCHOOLHOUSE DOOR: Protecting Our Students

February 23, 2013

It is understandable to want to take action when tragedy occurs. It becomes particularly urgent when the horrific event involves children. Reactions tend to be swift and loud. After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, there was a feeling that we needed to do "something."

North Carolina was no different. Wake County's school board proposed that unarmed security guards patrol all elementary schools. Although that idea was tabled, Wake County School Board Chair Keith Sutton created a task force to discuss strengthening safety in schools. The first members named to the task force are from law enforcement. To be sure, law enforcement will know and understand safety. However, people in communities also understand safety and they understand their students. 

The hope is that the task force will have a deliberate and thoughtful process which will not just include or be dominated by law enforcement but also consist of enough community members to ensure that all involved will see how adding resource officers or guards can exacerbate school to prison pipeline issues.

Even though there is a potential for a safety task force created in the wake of a tragedy to foster an environment of fear rather than safety, it is not the most fearful reaction we have seen in the state as of late. The General Assembly has proposed two bills that would put weapons in the hands of school personnel or volunteer marshals, or place armed security guards in schools.

Senate Bill 27 would allow the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission to provide training for people who could be safety marshals. Local school boards would identify and designate who the safety marshals will be. Yet armed personnel will not engender safety in the hearts of elementary schoolchildren; it will give them something to fear. Imagine how any student or adult will feel when unfamiliar people appear in a school with access to guns. While local school districts will try to identify only responsible citizens, there is no guarantee that someone who is unfit will kept away from a school. People who want to be cops but do not make the cut can now volunteer to be marshals.

Senate Bill 59 would allow schools to place armed security guards in schools. At a time when the public education budget is suffering from deep cuts — without any hope of relief — armed security guards are probably not the best use of the little money received by school districts.  While there is no proof that “good guys with guns” will keep students safe from “bad guys with guns,” we do know that well-educated students are less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system and our dollars should go to meet that end.

The need to protect our children overrides all other concerns. Tragedies involving children intensify our need to keep our children safe. North Carolina can better protect our students as well as our communities when schools are adequately and equitably funded, classrooms are diverse, discipline policies are fair, and all students have a chance to achieve. 

Unfortunately, we cannot avoid the unexpected tragedy. But we do know that we can impact the lives of students by providing them with a great education — and that is empowering. If we want to do “something,” perhaps we can protect our students by avoiding an environment of fear and instead surround them with the prospect of a strong educational future.  

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