A state-appointed commission investigating last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida has issued a report that includes a recommendation to arm teachers. The commission unanimously approved the report Wednesday.
The suggestion to arm teachers quickly arose after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last February, which left 17 people dead. President Donald Trump recommended arming teachers after the shooting, arguing that they would even be more effective than school resource officers.
The White House created a school safety commission to make recommendations on school safety in March. The White House school safety commission’s report and the Florida commission’s 446-page report have some striking similarities, in their lack of focus on gun measures, ramped up school security measures, and focus on school officers.
But experts on school discipline and racial equity in schools say that there isn’t research to support arming teachers and that higher school security can make the school-to-prison pipeline even worse.
Pedro A. Noguera, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Education at UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, who focuses on how schools are affected by social and economic conditions, said of the report, “It’s clear that this is a commission doing its work that is not based on research but is really based on being ideologically aligned with the president’s views.”
Looking at the 10 deadliest school shootings, the vast majority of them took place in towns with fewer than 75,000 residents. But many of these suburban school shootings, involving white assailants, will result in policies that affect students of color in low-income communities, Noguera said.
“That happened after the first zero tolerance policies were adopted by states and school leadership [after Columbine] and we see this kind of punitive approach being taken in particularly poor communities so it does follow a pattern that is pretty familiar,” he said.
Students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined in schools and more likely to be arrested at school. According to Education Department data released in 2016, Latinx students are 1.4 times as likely to attend a school with a school law enforcement officer but not a counselor as white student and Black students are 1.2 times as likely to attend a school with an officer but not counselors.
On the issue of arming teachers, Noguera said, “The research on that is clear. There have not been a lot of studies done on responses but the presence of armed guards have not been a deterrent during these kinds of shootings. There is an increasing number of arms in the schools which opens up a whole another set of possibilities of misuse of weapons … We need fewer weapons not more.”
An FBI study of 163 instances of mass shootings found that only one shooting was stopped by one armed person, compared to 21 shootings that were stopped by unarmed people.
When the federal school safety commission released its report in December, its effects on marginalized students were even more apparent. It recommended rolling back policies that discouraged school officers from disciplining students for minor disruptions and policies that pushed for more positive and less punitive responses to student behavior. It argued that such policies actually create more dangerous schools, despite the lack of evidence showing this is the case. Students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined in schools.
Jason Nance, professor of law at the University of Florida, Levin College of Law, who focuses on racial inequalities in the public school system and school discipline, said that to his knowledge there is no research showing that arming teachers would create a safer learning environment.
“There are many scenarios in which a teacher having a handgun would be not very effective against some outside intruders with sawed off shotguns or much more powerful firearms,” he said. “There are many things that could go wrong if teachers bring guns into the classroom. They could fall into the wrong hands. They could accidentally be discharged, which has happened in the past. Or we could have a reckless teacher who would display or use a firearm in a situation where it should not be displayed or used, which could end up causing harm or could affect the relationship or trust that student has with teachers.”
Some of the other recommendations in the commission’s report include mandatory lockdown training for teachers, increasing taxes to raise funds for more school security, doors that lock from the inside, safe areas for students to hide, and bulletproof glass on school windows.
Nance said that increased school security, such as metal detectors used in connection with zero tolerance policies, can often contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Schools officials may refer students to law enforcement or students may be suspended or expelled for carrying something such as scissors or a pocket knife without having any opportunity to explain their reason for carrying it. In other circumstances, smaller scuffles between students that could be resolved without law enforcement instead result in arrest and increased involvement in the criminal justice system.
“We know that once they have increased contact with the criminal justice system, there are some very poor outcomes associated with that interaction, such as dropping out of school, not being able to go to college, the possibility of being arrested or incarcerated, which could lead to all kinds of outcomes, so that raises a lot of concerns,” Nance said.
Nance said there isn’t a lot of research on specific recommendations such as creating fewer entry points for a shooter. But there is research showing that officers, metal detectors, searches, and cameras have some effect on the school environment, particularly when used in combination.
“Sometimes they can cause conflicts with teachers and students and we know a crucial element in creating an environment in which students learn best is based on relationships and trust,” he said. “You end up creating a school that is actually less safe so by adopting hardening measures you’re actually doing the exact opposite because the research demonstrates that in safe schools, it’s about relationships. It’s about relationships students have with one another, relationships students have with teachers, and with community members and parents.”
Nance said that introducing metal detectors and taking other similar measures disrupts those relationships and can cause distrust and a feeling of being less safe.
“That is going to have an effect on the school climate in a negative way and as school climate deteriorates, learning will deteriorate as well. The research does indicate that,” he said.
The commission recommended requiring mental health permits to notify law enforcement if a patient threatens someone with harm and said student’s mental health records should follow them from school to school. Trump has focused on mental illness as a common culprit when referring to mass shootings but research has shown that most psychiatric disorders are not related to violence. A 2017 article from University of Pittsburgh researchers found that mental illness is not a huge risk factor for violence and that even empirically based screening methods that could identify people with mental illness who are more likely to be violent “have limited utility.”
School deputies are recommended to have “frequent, thorough and realistic training to handle high-risk, high stress situations, especially single-officer response training,” according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s summary of the report. The commission also recommended that the state legislature increase funding for school resource officers but allow more flexibility in spending money for security and that the Broward Sheriff’s Office revise its active shooter policy so that officers know they must immediately seek out the shooter. That was previously left to officers’ discretion.
In regards to school resources officer training, Nance said that de-escalation training should be a priority for officers but that he is concerned about officers being told that any situation could become another mass school shooting.
“If they’re tuned into ‘I have to prevent another Parkland from happening at all costs, I’m going to do whatever I can and use all force to prevent this, if I have any kind of inkling that this could be a dangerous person,’ then yes that could be a very terrible situation in which a police officer used violence but didn’t need to to address a situation,” Nance said.