“School Safety” Really Means Sticking to Your Guns


Within 24 hours of a school shooting, headlines will read: “Governor’s post-Santa Fe school safety meetings happening largely in private,” “Lawmakers say safety will be a priority,” “School safety comes with a cost.” Both the pro-gun right and pro-gun control left want children to feel safe in their schools, yet they cannot agree on how to guarantee this sense of security, to say the least.

Headlines in the aftermath of school shootings feign concern about how to ensure “school safety,” but have become coded to invoke the gun debate and ultimately entrench partisan divides even further. However, the more unfortunate byproduct of the stalemate is that it prevents more rigorous interrogation of what it means for a school to be safe for its students altogether.

The gun control debate, like so many of the nation’s most contentious issues, is gridlocked. And the assumption that each side does not actually care about the safety of the country’s children at least partially fuels the animosity.

While advocates of gun control claim that pro-gun lawmakers are unable to overcome their love of guns in order to pass common sense gun laws, pro-gun politicians insist that more armament could demonstrate dedication to protecting students in schools.

Left wing media has tended to follow headlines about school safety with phrases like “gun control,” or “legislation.” More conservative networks like Fox News, on the other hand, tend to report non-legislative, physical safeguards to mass shootings. Fox headlines tend to immediately follow up “school safety” with phrases regarding building safety, school safety budget increases, and even the creation of “bullet friendly” furniture.

Were popular headlines about “school safety” not so consistently co-opted by a discussion or deflection of gun policy, Americans could have the opportunity to explore other conceptions of school safety, and various other prevalent factors which also make so many students feel unsafe in schools.

For example, the current debate about gun control largely focuses specifically on mass shootings. And although undoubtedly necessary, this constrained conversation does not acknowledge more discreet violence and daily trauma that occurs in schools with predominantly students of color.

The Washington Post has assessed that children of color are far more likely to experience campus gun violence on a regular basis than the majority white schools which experience mass shootings. The Post analysis also found that 62.6 percent of the students exposed to gun violence at school since 1999 were children of color, and that almost all those shootings were “targeted or accidental,” rather than indiscriminate, as is the case with many mass shootings.

These schools consequently do not see the national attention of whiter schools with such explosive instances of violence. Black Lives Matter youth in Chicago, at some points regarded as troublemakers or terrorists, have felt scorned by network news who seems to capitalize on the rousing from Parkland students, but fall silent when black students protest gun violence and police killings.

Consequently, this lack of coverage subverts discussion about how to employ equitable safety measures across communities of different socioeconomic groups.

But there are a myriad of other factors in students’ daily lives which have nothing to do with gun violence that make schools feel unsafe.

As of 2016, about 1 in 5 students between ages 12 and 18 reported some form of bullying in schools. Reports referred to verbal as well as physical abuse, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

However, bullying does not affect all students equally, of course. As of 2014, qualitative assessments of student bullying reports as well as school incident reports indicate that race and sexual orientation were the “categories of motivating bias” most frequently associated with hate crimes against students.

And despite overall lowering rates of bullying, anti-semitic and Islamophobic incidents have been steadily on the rise in the past few years. In some extreme cases, even educators have either aided or ignored the harassment and degradation of Muslim students.

Moreover, many neglected but very consequential safety concerns in many American schools are in fact environmental. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used census data to determine that the five worst polluted school areas include New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Jersey City and Camden, New Jersey.

Camden, for example, is heavily African American, Hispanic and young, where around a third of the 75,000 population is under 18. Another third of the city’s population lives in poverty. And about half of the city’s schools were built before the Great Depression, characterized by creaking buildings, lagging test scores and chronic absenteeism.

A Camden charter school teacher reported to The Guardian  that the school’s rates of absenteeism are definitely linked to pollution. Many students who are unable to concentrate “like other kids can” lose too many school days to asthma, ADHD and other learning disabilities that are exacerbated by the air and water pollution, and exposure to other toxins buried beneath the school buildings themselves.

Broadly, students of color are disproportionately at risk to environmental factors in schools. Although black children make up just 16 percent of all U.S. public school students, more than a quarter of them attend the schools worst affected by air pollution. By contrast, white children total about 52 percent of the public school students but only half of those attend the highest risk schools.

These are difficult and extremely necessary conversations to be had on a national scale, but it seems that they may never receive the same consideration as the issue of school shootings because gun violence has become so embedded in audience’s’ understanding of safety.

None of this is intended to minimize the disturbingly prevalent issue of gun violence in schools. It might not be so difficult to have more in-depth discussion about more variant and nuanced issues of student safety if schools were not quite literally under fire so regularly.

While school shootings constitute one of the most direct threats to the current generation of students, one might consider why the issue of mass shootings becomes so much easier to rally concern for than say, lead contaminated soil on inner city school grounds.

Of course the gravity of mass shootings, especially when directed at children, elicits a visceral blend of grief and outrage from most sane Americans.

Various studies have corroborated screen media in general and violent media have been associated with poorer real world attention. So while news about gun violence can have a tight grip on audience attention, the effects are temporary and require continual stoking.

So it’s possible that network news is capitalizing on the volatility of the gun debate, leaving one to question whether or not the back and forth between pundits about gun policy has really ever been about “the children” at all.

Or worse yet, whether spouting dedication to “school safety” serves as another opportunity for pundits to puff their chests, and bray their refusal to interrogate various social isms that underscore a lack of reporting on other serious matters of school safety while insisting that guns are the only threat to school children.

Surely one hates to think adults cannot overcome their own egos in order to protect the actual lives of children, but is possible that the nation has become numb to the barrage of headlines about yet another school shooting? Even just a little bit?

There is also a wealth of evidence linking violent media content to decreased empathy and prosocial behavior. The tragic irony then might be that the necessary reporting on the progress of the gun debate amplifies discourse that seems less and less concerned with human lives.

Moreover, the devastating truth is that issues of environmental racism, or daily incremental harassment of marginalized student groups are not as marketable as gun policy, nor are they conceptualized as equally foundational to a collective American identity as the Second Amendment. And unfortunately these issues, although clearly matters of school safety, are deemed less worthy of primetime news slots.

Headlines about “school safety” are misleading. They are not typically followed by nuanced or inclusive discussions of student entitlements to safety within school communities, but rather a chance for opposing camps on gun policy to forward their politics.

They leave little to no consideration for other social and emotional dangers which disproportionately affect some students whose suffering goes largely unnoticed.

Schools will become safer, both in perception and actuality, once journalists openly acknowledge who and what is threatening students, not just on days of tragedy, but always. But when students and journalists are each in their own way continually staring down the barrel of a gun, it can be hard, maybe even impossible, to see beyond the immediate threat.

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