BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- Safety in public schools has been much on the public’s mind in the post-Newtown era. The massacre has inspired calls for getting more police officers into school buildings.
At the same time, civil rights organizations are calling for the exact opposite: getting the cops out. Critics cite horrors such as the 5-year-old who was cuffed and taken down to the police station for having a temper tantrum and a 7-year-old who was interrogated for 10 hours for allegedly stealing $5.
Thankfully, schools across the country, reacting to public outrage over ridiculous zero-tolerance policies, are trying to find middle ground.
The Texas state Senate recently cleared a bill that would require schools to adopt a tiered system to address misbehavior and rules violations with in-school consequences and remediation. More serious situations would be elevated to parent and community-based programs, while serious criminal behavior would still be handled by police and end up in court.
Like most other contentious issues involving the potent mix of race, education and politics, it’s far too easy to pick a side based on outrageous headlines that don’t take into account how thorny it is to navigate drama-drenched school hallways.
In truth, while some people abhor the idea of having police in schools, others welcome it.
A decade before the Columbine massacre kicked off the era of cops in schools, I attended a very diverse Chicago public high school where police were stationed, providing a constant daily presence to keep students safe. The students who worked hard and stayed out of trouble generally had no issues with the police. For those students, as well as faculty, it was a relief to have officers around on the frequent occasions when tempers flared and fights erupted in busy corridors.
Years later as a barely 5-foot-tall teacher working in high schools that served low-income, high-crime communities, I jumped into scrums of violent teenagers with some regularity. How I wished there had been police stationed in hallways to protect us.
That’s not to say, however, that we should let safety fears turn our nation’s public schools into what Texas reformers describe as a massive referral system for the courts and others call the school-to-prison pipeline.
We need a national movement to define what safety means in schools and how such a lofty goal can be achieved. Similar to how the nation is finally getting school districts on board with having common standards for teaching core subjects such as math and language arts, we need standards for keeping schools safe and orderly without creating a situation where scores of students stand little chance of graduating from high school or avoiding jail.
“We need to have a holistic approach to securing our building from common-sense things like locking the doors, requiring buzzers to get into buildings, having hall monitors -- my daughter’s school didn’t do some of these things prior to Newtown -- to having long-term supports in place for students to deal with the mistakes they will inevitably make in a school setting,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project. The Washington, D.C.-based racial justice organization is heavily involved in trying to keep students from entering the adult criminal justice system over misbehaviors that in the past would have been handled with a trip to the principal’s office.
Dianis’ organization believes that schools, especially low-income ones in which students lack basic supports at home, should provide more school psychologists, counselors, social workers and teachers trained in conflict resolution.
“Safety has to happen but not through the short-term fix of police in schools,” said Dianis. “They’re not educators, they’re only trained to enforce the criminal code. And often their very presence creates a hostile environment not conducive to learning.”
To be fair, police have proved to be great partners in school districts across the country, but they really shouldn’t have to bear the whole responsibility of maintaining safe and positive learning environments.
Parents, school administrators and policymakers must find more ways to reach a middle ground on school safety that ensures that all students -- even the ones who haven’t yet figured out how to control their tempers or make good choices for themselves -- have the opportunity to learn.
Focusing solely on barring intruders and making problem children simply go away can’t cut it anymore.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group