Illinois bill would reward schools for hiring social workers, not armed security officers

"What I needed at that moment in time was a counselor... not be put in handcuffs while having an anxiety attack."

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

While states across the country advance policies to arm teachers or to put more police officers in schools, the Illinois House passed legislation Friday that would create a grant program for schools that employ social workers or psychologists instead of armed security officers to keep students safe.

The measure, HB 4208, was passed 64-25 in the Democratic-controlled House, the Associated Press reported, and next moves to the Senate, where it is also expected to pass.

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The bill would establish the Safe Schools Healthy Learning Environment grant to “promote school safety and healthy learning environments by reducing the reliance on law enforcement to address school disciplinary matters and implementing alternative strategies that will better address the full range of students’ intellectual, social, emotional, physical, psychological, and moral developmental needs.”

Over the past few years, several other states — including Colorado, New York, and Tennessee — have all taken steps to increase the number of counselors in schools. In Colorado, the Colorado School Counselor Corps saved the state almost $320 million by decreasing the student dropout rate.

The Illinois legislation comes amid increasing attention on ways to prevent school shootings, months after the February 14 rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead.

Following the shooting, the National Rifle Association (NRA), as well as the Trump administration, have advocated for arming teachers and increasing the number of security officers in schools. Indeed, some Republicans, like Illinois state Rep. Peter Breen, opposed the measure on the grounds that more police officers could help prevent school shootings. According to 2014 data from the Department of Education, police officers are stationed in nearly 30 percent of the country’s public schools — almost double the amount in 1997.

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Despite this reality, evidence has shown that more guns in schools — whether in the hands of police officers or armed teachers — actually make students less safe. Armed staff in schools have very little chance of stopping school shooters — as was the case of the armed guard in Parkland who never encountered the shooter — and, in fact, increase the odds of deadly accidents.

A 2015 study published in the Washington University Law Review, found that the presence of law enforcement officers “is predictive of greater odds that school officials refer students to law enforcement for committing various offenses, including these lower-level offenses,” which is particularly dangerous for students of color, who are often more harshly disciplined than white students. Law enforcement officers often end up charging students for these offenses, taking them away from their studies by tying them up in court and, in some cases, landing them in prison.

“This bill is important because what I needed at that moment in time was a counselor. Someone who I could actually talk to, not be put in handcuffs while having an anxiety attack and feeling as though I couldn’t breathe,” Amina Henderson-Redawn, an education advocate who experienced a conflict with a school resource officer in high school, told The Columbia Chronicle following the bill’s passage. “I’m passionate about this bill because too many youth feel like their mental health is being ignored.”

Research supports Henderson-Redawm’s claims. School counselors and social workers can prevent school violence and suicide by providing students with the opportunity to communicate their thoughts, by intervening early when students act out, and by facilitating workshops and other settings that promote positive behaviors.

The Illinois bill is especially significant given that most schools are often strapped for cash when it comes to hiring social workers, who are often outnumbered by school police officers. And the social workers that are hired in schools are typically stretched thin with heavy caseloads.