In 2015, a 16-year-old African American girl was forcibly arrested and charged with “disturbing schools” under South Carolina law for failing to give up her cellphone. Caught on video by classmate Niya Kenny, the class watched in horror as Deputy Ben Fields put the student in a chokehold, flipped her over her desk, and dragged her across the floor prior to handcuffing her. On other occasions, students with disabilities as young as 5 have been handcuffed, shackled, and even ticketed by police for throwing tantrums at school – being met with punitive discipline rather than appropriate interventions accounting for their disabilities. LGBTQ+ students have routinely been punished for violating sexuality and gender norms at school, like a transgender student in Minnesota who recorded school administrators unlocking a bathroom stall and confronting her for using the bathroom that matched her gender but not her biological sex. Despite receiving media attention, these students and many more remain hidden victims of state-sponsored violence in American public schools. Why? Because the school safety movement has deliberately left them behind.
Instead, the focus on school safety is dominated by debates about gun control and gun violence. Known only by their names, famous school shootings like Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland have stirred debates and activism on gun control in the U.S. with predicable regularity in their aftermath. In 1999, about 8,000 demonstrators in Denver protested outside the NRA’s annual meeting, which took place only weeks after the Columbine shooting. After Sandy Hook, gun control legislation would be voted on and defeated in the Senate, despite public calls for action by parents, community members, and gun control advocacy groups. Most recently, thousands participated in March for Our Lives protests and the National School Walkout, putting pressure on Congress to enforce stricter gun laws in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The school safety movement’s focus on gun control ignores and neglects the experiences of children who are victimized at school through zero tolerance punishment and state-sanctioned interventions for minor misbehavior. Arguably, this is because children who experience such regular victimization are not “ideal victims” – they are students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students – and thus do not make sensational news stories. In 2018, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report documenting that black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined in K-12 public schools. Black students are overrepresented in all types of discipline, including corporal punishment, arrests at school, and referrals to law enforcement. According to the Department of Education, students with disabilities nationally make up 12% of students in public schools, but 75% of those physically restrained by adults at school. Furthermore, GLSEN reports that two in five LGBTQ+ students receive detention, suspension, or expulsion from school; and this rate increases when accounting for race, ability, and economic status.
Meanwhile, activism and protests that erupt in the aftermath of school shootings are flush with pictures of the primarily white, able-bodied, and middle-class faces of school shooting victims – not a surprise considering that school shooters are overwhelmingly white themselves according to Michael Rocque. Where protests center on sensational school shootings, they neglect students who are disproportionately disciplined on a regular basis, communicating that only some victims of school violence are worthy of concern.
The school gun control movement additionally obscures violence committed by agents of the state that schools employ to maintain discipline, such as school resource officers (SROs). In 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 42% of public schools had at least one SRO on school grounds. While these agents are supposed to maintain order and become involved only in serious situations of violence, a report by the ACLU in 2017 outlined how SROs “often become involved in noncriminal matters,” handcuffing students “regularly for incidents considered noncriminal even by school standards.” Some of this behavior includes talking back, throwing tantrums, and trying to use the bathroom that matches someone’s gender identity. SROs often don’t stop at handcuffing students; the ACLU has documented cases of SROs using pepper spray, tasers, and batons on children to force compliance, in addition to hitting, punching, and kicking students. Additionally, these actions by state agents are viewed as necessary in order to combat school violence and maintain discipline, instead of violations of students’ rights, abuses of power, or criminal actions in and of themselves.
Finally, the school safety movement normalizes punitive punishment in schools and ironically advocates for more guns in schools. In the wake of school shootings, parents, community members, and school personnel want school discipline policies to be toughened immediately due to fear created by sensational media stories. After the Parkland shooting, Betsy DeVos argued that the only way to make schools safer was to utilize federal funds to arm teachers, increase the number of armed SROs on school grounds, and toughen school disciplinary policies. If such legislation were passed, students who are already victimized by excessive disciplinary policies will inevitably be harmed further.
Let me be clear: I am in no way trying to invalidate the pain and loss suffered by the families of school shooting victims. However, I believe that schools should be safe for allchildren, not only those who have been affected by serious and rare acts of violence committed by other students. The school safety movement needs to recognize that school and state officials are often responsible for much of the violence that occurs in public schools in the first place by enforcing overly harsh punishment that does not improve student behavior nor school safety, and weakens the potential for creating ethical and just school environments. Ultimately, the movement needs to ask itself who it is leaving out, and why nobody is protesting for the hidden victims of zero tolerance discipline.
Erica Bower is a doctoral student in Criminology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University.