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The latest school safety proposals ignore the experiences of students of color

Why calls to arm teachers have been met with fear in black and brown communities.

BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

The recent school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has renewed the debate about high national rates of gun violence and what to do about it. But as the debate has settled along the typical partisan divisions, one idea has emerged: Arming teachers could make schools safer.

“If you had a teacher who was adept with the firearm, they could end the attack very quickly,” President Trump said during a February 21 listening session with students and parents affected by school shootings. He also proposed paying armed teachers “a little bit of a bonus.”

Shifting the conversation away from gun control to focus on arming teachers and staff is arguably a distraction from confronting the causes of school shootings and gun violence. “In any other country in the world, the idea of arming teachers with guns in classrooms to protect children would be seen as the policy equivalent to random screaming,” Vox’s German Lopez wrote recently. “Yet in the United States, it’s an idea that now has support.”

Still, allowing teachers and other school employees to carry guns in schools isn’t entirely new — several school districts in Texas, for example, already allow teachers with concealed carry permits to bring guns into schools, and similar policies have been considered or implemented in school districts in Ohio, Indiana, and California in recent years.

But legislation is currently under consideration in states like Florida, Tennessee, and in a school district in Kentucky, raising a discussion about how arming teachers could actually play out in America’s classrooms, especially for teachers and students of color.

“It’s another layer to the conversation about how racialized the debate around gun violence can be,” the Washington Post’s Eugene Scott noted last week. “The current conversation about school safety appears to have more black Americans drawing attention to the consequences arming teachers could have in schools where implicit biases exist.”

There’s a broader issue magnified by the intensity of reactions to the Parkland shooting: When it comes to gun violence, race and the unique needs of communities of color are still being overlooked in the national conversation.

For teachers of color, arming themselves could come with risk

The concerns that come with arming teachers are twofold. First, how would such a measure affect black students, a group that is already much more likely to face disproportionately harsh discipline in schools? And second, how would it affect teachers of color, especially black teachers, given the rates of black men and women wounded or killed in officer-involved shootings?

There’s isn’t any data out there that gives a clear picture of how people of color would be affected by arming teachers. But given broader trends, it is possible to make some reasonable guesses.

For example, research from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has shown that when participants were asked are asked to offer split-second reactions to images of weapons or tools after being shown a black or white face, people identify a weapon faster when shown a black face first.

A 2005 University of Colorado study, replicating an experiment that has been conducted by other researchers, found that forcing subjects to react in a split-second to a potentially armed person meant participants would move to shoot armed black individuals faster and more often than armed whites and take more time to determine to not shoot an unarmed black person than an unarmed white person.

These examples, and others, suggest that race influences how people identify the presence of a weapon, even if said weapon isn’t actually there. In a scenario involving an armed teacher of color, these factors would likely be at play: A teacher could, in a split second, look like a shooter, instead of a protector of the students in their care.

When discussing how arming teachers could affect educators of color, many have noted the case of Philando Castile, a Minnesota school cafeteria worker and licensed gun owner who was shot and killed by a police officer during a police stop in July 2016. The officer said that he shot Castile, who had already informed the officer that he was carrying a legal weapon, because he believed Castile was reaching for his gun.

Teachers of color have expressed concern that instances like this, or ones where they would be mistaken for an active shooter, would only become more likely if they carried a weapon inside schools.

Students of color already deal with racial bias in schools. Armed teachers could make things worse.

There’s much more data to draw from on how this proposal could affect students. And that data, which shows that black students are much more likely to be disciplined and experience racial bias in schools, suggests that arming teachers could make an already difficult environment much more dangerous for students of color.

In a 2014 fact sheet detailing disparities in discipline during the 2011-2012 school year, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights noted that black students are suspended and expelled from school at a rate more than three times greater than white students are. When broken down by race and gender, the OCR notes that black girls are suspended at six times the rate of white girls and at twice the rate of white boys.

Overall, black students were only about 16 percent of the student population, but made up more than a third of students suspended or expelled, according to the civil rights office. White students accounted for a similar rate of student suspension and expulsions, but they make up half of the student population. Black students also accounted for 27 percent of the students referred to law enforcement and just over 30 percent of the students involved in a school-related arrest.

This disparity starts early. While black children made up just 18 percent of preschoolers during the 2011-2012 period, they accounted for 48 percent of those receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. By middle school, due to frequent exposure to school discipline and punishment for relatively undefined things like “defiance” and “disobedience,” black and Latino students report lacking trust in their school’s disciplinary systems at a rate much higher than their peers, which could affect whether they choose to attend college.

Collectively, this disparity fuels what has been called the “school-to-prison-pipeline,” a systemic bias that civil rights advocates say pushes children and young adults of color out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.

The problem is most pronounced for black students, but is not limited to them. At Slate, Jamelle Bouie notes that black, Latino, and Native American students are all disciplined at disproportionate rates, adding that the suspension rate for Black and Latino students doubled between 1972 and 2010. “Whether it’s zero tolerance policies or in-school police officers, the harshest discipline falls on black and brown students,” Bouie writes.

Experts have attributed part of the disparity to a lack of diversity in the teacher workforce, arguing that the punishment of students of color could be the result of implicit bias, solidly held stereotypes, or an inability to connect with students of different races. A 2016 review of Denver Public Schools noted that young white women — the demographic group that makes up most of the US teaching population —reported being afraid of their black students, and that their fears affected their ability to connect with students from these groups.

According to a 2016 Department of Education report, 82 percent of teachers in the 2011-2012 school year identified as white when responding to an Education Department survey. Roughly 7 percent of teachers identified as black and 8 percent identified as Latino.

“Every state has a higher percentage of students of color than teachers of color,” the report notes.

To be fair, school discipline and violence against students are very different things. But even when looking at the latter, there are enough examples to suggest that arming teachers could lead to disastrous results.

A 2016 Brookings Institution report for example, found that while the use of corporal punishment is not widespread, black students are twice as likely as white children to face corporal punishment in schools. And as Stacey Patton, an assistant professor at Morgan State University, writes in the Washington Post, there have been several examples of teachers and school officers using physical violence on students in recent years:

A middle school teacher in the Bronx borough of New York, made her seventh-grade students lie on the floor while she stepped on one student’s back to illustrate the trauma of the Middle Passage of the slave trade during Black History Month. White teachers and school officers have cut off black students’ hair and been accused of cutting the hoods off their jackets, slapped them, berated them with the n-word, tackled and thrown them across the classroom and allegedly snatched them out of their seats violently for not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. Some teachers have been fired for posting racist rants on social media.

Strict school security measures implemented after mass shootings are often used against students of color

As Vox’s Dara Lind and Libby Nelson have noted, in the wake of the 1999 Columbine shooting, it was a fear of guns in schools that led to the increased use of school resource officers and the introduction of “zero-tolerance” school discipline that has disproportionately affected students of color.

The deaths of multiple children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 inspired another wave of strict surveillance and restrictive security measures that, even after controlling for safety concerns, research found were more likely to be introduced in predominantly nonwhite schools.

Now that the argument has circled back to guns being the only means of maintaining safety and security, the question of who is being considered in conversations about school safety remains.

“This is about protecting the narrative that white suburban schools are places of safety and preserving the idea that violence is elsewhere, that black and Latino youth represent danger,” Patton writes.

It’s a cutting point, one that gets to larger issues raised by communities of color in this post-Parkland moment. While politicians engage in a debate about how to stop school shootings, they continue to discuss solutions that are unlikely to benefit black and brown students or their communities.

It isn’t wrong to want schools and classrooms to be safe for students. But it requires an acknowledgement that for many students, schools have never been safe.