Opinion by Andy Sense
I am a high school teacher. One of my most brilliant students this year is severely impacted by trauma which, for him, often manifests as defiance and disengagement. Working with me and his affective education teacher he’s been doing heroic work to get better at attending class and participating as well as he can. One of the things he enjoys most about school are the field trips he takes with his affective ed class to the middle school where his younger brother attends.
Recently on one of these trips, my student didn’t see his brother. The middle school teacher told him that his brother had acted out earlier in the day when a School Resource Officer (SRO), in a gesture meant to be friendly, placed his hand on him. Because of the student’s own experience with trauma and the fact that he had no relationship with the SRO, and the SRO’s lack of knowledge about how to deal with a traumatized student, the SRO ultimately handcuffed him and sent him to the office to wait for his foster mom to pick him up. The idea of his younger brother being handcuffed sent my student spiraling downhill and refusing to return to school. He told his affective education teacher that he couldn’t trust anyone.
On the morning that Austin Lyles shot two teachers at East, I felt the same horror and fear and exhaustion we all felt. But as the parent of a neurodivergent 4th grader who has been on a safety plan at points in his educational history, I also feared the details that would come out and the community conversation that would follow. I knew that parents would demand to know details about other students on safety plans. I knew they would demand more rules and restrictions. And I knew that parents and students would be looking at kids like mine with suspicion and hostility.
All parents want school to be a place that is free of violence. But the history of public education is in part a history of discrimination and subtle violence against BIPOC children and communities. Although the chances of a student being killed by a gun at school on any given day are approximately 1 in 614,000,000, other types of violence happen to non-white, neurodivergent, and trauma-impacted kids every day. Things like a lack of representation in curricula; dress codes that restrict hoodies and doo rags that some students wear as coping mechanisms; disciplinary actions like referrals, suspensions, and expulsions that disproportionately impact students of color; and armed police in schools are some examples.
My neuro-divergent son, Artie, who enjoys immense privilege in most ways, has struggled to conform to expectations in school that simply don’t make sense to him. He is thriving at Hallett Academy this year because, rather than focusing resources on ways to restrict some of his behaviors, they have poured resources into capitalizing on his strengths and they have celebrated his uniqueness. He feels free to be exactly who he is at school. Consequently, explosive behaviors common to kids on the spectrum in moments of high anxiety and frustration have been almost non-existent this year.
What if, rather than imposing more rules and restrictions on everybody in a community, we fought for resources to make more students feel seen and free? There should be no place for violence at school, and weapons should be treated with real seriousness. But events like what happened at East tend to focus attention on one type of highly uncommon violence and ignore the kinds of violence that happen to many students daily.
My student whose brother found himself in handcuffs a few days ago will not feel safer in a school with more police officers in it. He will not feel safer in a school where his teachers crack down on behaviors of his that are part of how he copes with being at school in the first place. When we talk about the things that will make schools safer, let’s just please make sure to always ask, “safer for whom and from what?”
We appreciate Andy’s nuanced take on the question that is on the top of mind for so many of us in the moment. For another nuanced conversation about school safety, check out this recent episode of The Integrated Schools Podcast, hosted by PHNEE co-chair, Andrew Lefkowits.
In it, Dr. Meg Caven, an educational researcher, pushes for a more expansive view of safety beyond simply physical safety. She argues that a nuanced, multi-dimensional view of school safety is what is required if we truly care about equity, and want to see schools live up to the ideal of being incubators of democracy. Check out her recent article in What We’re Reading.