Like many others who saw the reports coming out of Uvalde, Texas, I am heartbroken and irate. The senseless murder of 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School, perpetuated by a young person just barely entering adulthood himself, inspires emotions that are difficult to process.
Indeed, many of us have yet to process the terror that took place in Buffalo, New York just a few weeks ago, where an avowed white supremacist inspired by the great replacement theory, murdered 10 black people.
Weeks have passed since the shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo. With time to reflect on this tragedy, the obvious question is how do we stop mass shootings in our schools? How do we protect our children?
According to some politicians, the answer is fight fire with fire. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz conveyed this message simply in his comments on the Uvalde shooting: “We know from past experience that the most effective tool for keeping kids safe is armed law enforcement on campus.”
To be sure, the Texas senator is an odious figure who has debased himself to the point of irrelevance. Even so, to some his response may seem rationale: Police stop bad guys, so get more police. However, as I recall my conversation last year with Alex Vitale, Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, this common-sense policing solution seems disconnected with the problem at hand. Details from Uvalde confirm it. We now know that there were police officers at the scene for over an hour before they killed the shooter. Students in the classroom were calling the police actively – even as they saw their fellow classmates being killed – and the police on the scene did not act.
Throwing police at this problem will not solve mass shootings at schools. Something Governor Kathy Hochul tacitly acknowledged this week when she signed a comprehensive package of gun laws that, among other things, ban the sale of semiautomatic weapons to people under 21. We applaud the governor and state legislature for enacting gun safety measures that can be a model for other states.
Yet, when it comes to our schools, the evidence suggests an armed presence is not a deterrent. A 2019 study of 179 schools found that there was no relationship between the presence of school resource officers (school safety agents in New York City) and the severity of school shooting incidents. In fact, evidence suggest that the presence of armed officers may even be detrimental to the safety of young people when there is a school shooting. A recent study in 2021 found that when there was a mass shooting at schools with an armed guard the rates of death were 2.83 times greater than schools without one.
The racial dimension of policing is another factor. Think about how quickly police use violence against unarmed Black men and how slowly they did the same when an armed individual was actively shooting children in a classroom. Think about the history of policing and its origins to the “Slave Patrols,” its role in the violent suppression of unions, and its evolution into the enforcers of Jim Crow laws. Think about the 2005 Supreme Court ruling that decided police are under no obligation to protect people from harm. Think about how in New York City, punitive disciplinary policies targeting young Black and Brown male students as well as the policing of school age children ushers our young people into the school-to-prison pipeline.
To be clear, this is not an attack on law enforcement. But we must think differently about policing, and we need to listen to true experts on school safety – students.
For years, young people have organized and advocated for the reforms that would best serve their needs. A policy brief from New York City’s own Urban Youth Collaborative in collaboration with the Center for Popular Democracy recommends research-based preventative solutions such as guidance counselors, social workers, restorative justice, and a mental health service continuum. These sorts of interventions and support help build community and create safe spaces in our schools.
Instead of pumping police into schools, we also need to improve economic conditions for our young people and their communities. Mayor Adams deserves praise for expanding the summer youth employment program. But let’s not stop there. How about subsidizing high-quality childcare, making CUNY free, and helping African Americans who were systematically excluded from homeownership buy a home and build wealth?
The main takeaway here is that we need to invest in preventative measures and resist the reactive, knee-jerk forces that push us towards increased policing as a policy response. We must keep in mind that police budgets are higher than they have ever been and so are mass shootings. If we want to end the cycles of violence we see every day, we must break our old patterns and do something new.
If you want to learn more about police reform, violence reduction, and restorative justice, check out the Community Service Society’s database.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.