Schools as Safe Havens

This morning a friend of mine posted to Facebook a reflection on today’s March for Our Lives and its relationship to white privilege. I have written elsewhere on perspectives we should consider for rampage school shootings. Among other things, they are statistically rare, compared with other forms of youth violence which occur off school grounds, such as are experienced by inner city youth. (We should still be concerned by rampage school shootings because they resemble in their profiles adult–perpetrated mass homicides, such as occur in workplaces, and because those are prevalent.)

Such critiques of white privilege have driven home for me the importance of guiding the discourse about  school safety toward gun control. On the one hand, I have documented elsewhere that Katherine Newman finds five “necessary but insufficient” conditions for rampage school shootings:

  1. the perception of oneself as socially marginal, which incorporates the impact of bullying and school climate;
  2. individual vulnerabilities, such as psychological conditions that magnify the impact of marginalization;
  3. cultural scripts which “delimit the options for reaction”;
  4. the failure of school surveillance systems to detect troubled individuals (“under the radar”); and of course,
  5. the availability of guns.

Newman also identified appropriate policy options in the immediate aftermath of school shootings, and for prevention. Proposals which seek to institute background checks, and provide schools resources such as mental health services, are all a part of a broad spectrum of reasonable options to increase school safety. However, these also play into conservative framing that mental health issues are paramount, and that we can leave guns untouched. This framing does nothing to create safety for disadvantaged communities and communities of color. Katherine Newman and others often create policy options which do not stigmatize particular communities and have broad appeal, a sort of “motherhood and apple pie” approach. School shootings are rare, but increasing mental health services to schools is not only preventative, but has a broader reach, including as support to overworked teachers. Likewise, inasmuch as George Farkas’s findings on the black-white test score gap do implicate culture to a small degree, his policy options are “motherhood and apple pie,” like reducing class size and increasing access to early childhood education. They help everyone, but help the disadvantaged disproportionately, because they, unlike the privileged, don’t otherwise have easy access to such things. (These appear even in the corporate–sponsored Education Reform Act of 1993 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.) In short, I argue that reasonable policy options cannot leave guns untouched.

Doubt about background checks is consistent with what James Alan Fox, Jack Levin, and Emma E. Fridel argue in Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, 4th E. (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2019: 284)

Can any form of gun control prevent a person like [Jared] Loughner from accessing powerful weaponry? Unfortunately background checks, as prescribed by the Brady Law of 1994, do not necessarily provide effective preventative measures against the onslaught. Few mass killers have criminal or psychiatric records. Furthermore, most mass murderers would not consider buying a weapon through illegal means. After all, they see themselves as law–abiding citizens who are only looking for some justice.

Fox, Levin and Fridel, also express grave doubt about the conservative proposal to arm teachers, writing

Arming teachers, even with a requirement for firearms training, creates the potential for tragic overresponse by anxious school personnel. Every year in the United States, thousands of students are expelled for being in possession of a gun at school (and sometimes just for fear of gangs or bullies)., What would occur if the students were observed by a faculty member who was also armed and ready to respond with gun fire in order to protect the school population? In addition, what would be the result if an armed teacher were to mistake a cell phone or any shiny object for a gun, especially in a climate where concerns for school shootings were elevated? At the end of the day, school teachers are in the position to be educators, not executioners (297).

This is clearly quite resonant with the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement, the shadow movement of March for Our Lives, in the sense of what is cast by the bright light of white privilege.

Moreover, my friend’s post first brought me to what I heard Brené Brown utter in an On Being Podcast:

[W]hen I work with teachers, I tell them all the time: You may be creating the only space in a child’s life where he or she can walk in, hang up their backpack, and hang up their armor. Only for the hour or two hours this child is with you can they literally take that off.

When we arm teachers, or otherwise turn schools into armed camps, we remove what for disadvantaged children might be the one safe haven in their lives.

This is the difference that privilege creates. Newman observes schools are often the only public stage in suburban and rural communities in which rampage school shootings are likely to occur, and in such shootings it’s typically the institution that’s targeted. For disadvantaged communities, schools are the safe haven away from the places violence against youth is more likely to occur. Let’s choose “motherhood and apple pie” policy options that are empirically supported, rather than unsustainable ideological ones like arming teachers because they resonate with the fears of communities and further marginalize them.


About Richard Hudak

I am Senior Adjunct Faculty in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and I have been a practitioner of Anusara™ yoga. I have completed 200 hours of teacher training within its diaspora community, consistent with its philosophy and alignment principles.
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