US: Unpacking “Safe Schools”

Education worker

Summary: An education worker’s thoughts on the violence, overt and structural, that permeates the US school system – Editors

May 24th marked another day of senseless killing on an American school campus. The premeditated massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas resulted in the deaths of 21 people—19 of whom were children in class at the time. As there are already so many reports of the harrowing events that transpired on the day itself, I won’t recount all of it here. Instead, I want to unpack the public response to the shooting and, on a more general level, the inadequacy of school responses to gun violence.

The shooting in Uvalde almost immediately stoked the national discussion around gun control. While mass shootings have become a frustratingly huge part of America’s news cycle, the Uvalde shooting is arguably the first case to take such a strong foothold on public discourse since the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in 2012. And it does so despite a total of 27 school shootings occurring in the US within 2022 so far. Debates around gun control have, by and large, stayed within the framing of “protecting our children”. As such, the conservative counterarguments against those advocating for gun control have focused on the task of protecting schools. The proposals of arming teachers with guns, bolstering schools’ shooting-readiness trainings, increasing the presence of police on and around campuses, and “one door” schools where police are stationed at the singular exit/entrance (such as the ones that Senator Ted Cruz and others propose (https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/28/uvalde-shooting-school-doors/) are nothing new—Pressures to militarize and carceralize school settings under the guise of boosting school safety are an ever-present undercurrent in the US’s political fabric. Despite Texas being one of the states to enact many of these “safety” measures, the efforts did little to change the outcome at Uvalde (https://www.texaastribune.org/2022/05/26/texas-uvalde-shooting-harden-schools/). In fact, the police in Uvalde are facing public scrutiny for the hard-to-explain delay between the events leading up to the crime and their response, with their response stoking distrust of Uvalde locals (https://apnews.com/article/uvalde-school-shooting-politics-texas-shootings-56a4d01fb1cda19947db89fcb6bd85fd). Of course, the problem of increased police presence/surveillance at schools isn’t one that can be remedied by a more well-trained or well-funded police force. Students who attend inner city schools, whose campuses have had metal detectors and guards at every entrance and exit, who have seen their fellow classmates terrorized by the police, and who are treated like potential criminals before they are treated as students, who see the school-to-prison pipeline enacted in real time, know the damage of a carceral campus better than anyone.

On May 24th, in Los Angeles, fatal shots were fired a block from the school where I work. Our school immediately went into lockdown as circling helicopters came closer and closer until they were whirring directly overhead, close enough to make the buildings rattle as staff and students bunkered down inside. Our morning started on this stomach-turning note. News about that day’s events in Uvalde came to us 3 hours into lockdown, and while our circumstances were different (the shooter was further out and shot at police, rather than children), I couldn’t help but think that the school and police reaction to the shooter in our area was just as absurd. On a normal day, our school feels a lot like a prison, but on May 24th, it felt especially like one.

On a normal day, the counselors function not just as advisors, but as security along with campus aides. The group of de facto security guards hover over students during their passing periods and lunch as if they’re sheep to be herded and watched over, with some of the more authoritarian guards barking orders at them without caring to know if a student needs help. The campus is also locked and guarded on all sides except for when students come and leave. (Students that participate in after-school programs are also locked in until their programs end.)  Within the administration, too, is a machismo-wrought disciplinary committee that is hell-bent on penalizing students for things like tardiness/truancy and violating dress code—both issues that, more often than not, are a result of too many demands on parents’ time and money. This same disciplinary committee has historically been underequipped or unwilling to deal with pervasive issues of discrimination and harassment amongst the student population which, unsurprisingly, parallel the cultural tug-of-war taking place between the grown-ups in the realms of how to navigate sex/gender, race, ability, and class. On May 24th, the most dominant personalities from the ones I’ve described above scrambled to take leadership over the lockdown, giving orders without giving due consideration to logistical issues raised by the teachers and others who were directly looking over students. (This also had an uncomfortable racialized and gendered dynamic—the authoritarians in administration were much harsher when commanding and criticizing the actions of the campus aides, the majority of whom are women and who speak limited English.)

While sitting on the floor of my office with the lights shut off, I was able to hear communication through one of the school security’s two-way radios. It was strange to see just how smoothly and quickly the line of communication about the nearby shooting came from the police to our principals and, from there, down to the de facto security. Students and teachers, by design, were the last to be informed about what was happening. (However, a few students, administrators, and teachers also followed an alternative stream of updates from Citizen, an app that has streamlined the excitement and intensity of live-action police chases, by amalgamating citizen reports/comments on events such as these as they unfold.)

The strangest part of May 24th, though, was how quickly and tepidly all of the news seemed to wash over our school community. In the days following, there was a quick, perfunctory message sent that encouraged all students to reach out to their counselors if they needed emotional support after what they had experienced—the very same counselors who are tasked with monitoring and shepherding students through hallways during every block of free time and who are distrusted by a significant part of the student population. The school sent a prerecorded message out to parents’ phones that, on top of assuring parents of the safety of their children, also assured them that their children were still “receiving instruction” in the middle of the lockdown.

The lockdown was eventually declared over with only a few more hours left of the school day, kids practically jumping with a mix of anxious, pent-up energy, joy, and relief after having been stuck in lockdown for the majority of the day. Then, only seconds later, an all-too-familiar message came blaring through the PA system: “Go straight to class. Do not gather or take detours. We will be punishing those who are reported as tardy.”

In the end, the shooting was treated as nothing more than a minor inconvenience to the whole grand production of the schoolyear with its unforgiving deadlines and teaching standards that teachers rush to meet. All the students that I talked to after the local shooting seemed to think about it as something totally outside the spheres of their life and concern, their minds already geared toward catching up on homework, finishing up the school year, and other academic landmarks. There is a certain perversion to an education system that insists on never-ending learning and yet, both physically and psychologically, draws the application of that education so close that it can’t accommodate the most pressing matters of today—not even when it comes, gun loaded, to their street.

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1 Comment

  1. Bill Young

    Very powerful and clear presentation of this issue.

    Reply

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