We Need Counselors And Nurses More Than Armed Police In Schools

Steve Debenport via GettyImages

My kids aren’t in school yet, but it’s terrifying to think that many parents lie awake at night thinking of the increasing likelihood that their children will find themselves in an active shooter situation while they attend school. Yet at the same time, it’s sickening that school shootings happen so often now that, as a society, we seem almost desensitized to the absolute ridiculousness of that hideous reality.

I think we can all agree that we want school shootings to come to a swift end, but there’s a lack of consensus, and outright disagreement, on the best way to achieve this. As a result, different schools in different locations seem to be employing different strategies.

There are folks who stand behind the importance of having “good guys with guns” in place, so if something happens, there’s hope to take the culprit down.

While supporters of the “good guy with a gun” suggestion have the right intention, research has indicated this strategy is not necessarily effective. Likewise, one could suggest that there is an issue with the reactionary style of this solution. In other words, it does nothing to decrease the likelihood of a shooter; it aims to ensure that we have networks in place to (hopefully)  reduce casualties.

Unfortunately, many individuals involved in the education system have jumped on the teachers with guns and increased police officer presence in school bandwagon. And what’s worse, this method has come at the expense of the only preventative measures we have in place — school-based mental health providers (SBMH providers) — like counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists.

And this is especially troubling considering that American adolescents are facing a mental health crisis.

First, there’s the problem efficacy of armed police in schools. Bottom line: police presence doesn’t equate to safety. In fact, according to Vox,  two civil rights groups say that if school safety is truly a concern, police should be removed from schools entirely.

“There is a considerable body of research showing that black and Latino students are more likely to be suspended, arrested, and disciplined in school,” P.R. Lockhart wrote in Vox. “Advocates argue that adding more police to this dynamic will only make things more difficult for students from marginalized groups — those from black and Latino communities, with LGBTQ identities, and with disabilities — who are already more likely to interact with police in their daily lives.

But second, armed police are coming at the expense of those persons and resources that actually will help, especially given that schools are seeing an increase in trauma and mental health challenges.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s data suggests that there has been a 70% increase in suicide rates for children ages 10 through 17 between 2006 and 2016. And research also shows that there has been a significant increase in mental health issues for teens and young adults in the past decade.

According to the data, approximately 72% of children will have experienced violence-related trauma by 18 years old.

While we all knew the state of mental health resources in schools was subpar, many of us were unaware circumstances were as dire as pointed out by a new report from the ACLU.

Here are some of the most staggering facts from the report:

– Six months after the Parkland school shooting, more than $1 billion was added to school security budgets by state legislatures, with funding for School Resource Officers (SROs) being one of the largest items.

– 47 states and D.C. don’t meet the recommended student-to-counselor ratio.

– 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.

The report also raised concerns about how an increased police presence in schools will impact children who are already at risk. For children of color, black children specifically, the school to prison pipeline — whereby minor early stage offenses filter disadvantaged youth into the criminal justice system and increase the likelihood they will end up incarcerated later in life — is already too real.

Once you’re labeled a “problem kid,” it’s almost impossible to lose that shift that image. But we aren’t acknowledging that kids are often “acting out” because they aren’t getting the help or support they need.

Additionally, one might wonder how an increased police presence could impact feelings of comfort and security for youth of color, considering that they are substantially more likely to have had negative interactions with police in the past.

I’ve witnessed firsthand how police presence in school impacts the school experience. I attended several schools with high levels of police/security guard presence. They had the power to write tickets on the spot and it was commonplace for large groups of students to be pepper-sprayed when fights or disturbances broke out. To make matters worse, it was my experience that some of the officers would make sexual comments toward female students and antagonizing comments toward males.

It caused me great anxiety to know that at any moment I could be sent directly to the office or written a ticket for having been perceived as unruly. These feelings were made worse by knowing they could not only antagonize us, but had the authority to punish us if we retaliated or responded negatively.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have any police officers in school. But we know they shouldn’t outnumber the support staff.

When a young student is having trouble with bullying, dealing with learning differences or mental health issues, or having problems at home, chances are they’re not going to run to the police officer. And for young children of color who have been socialized to fear the police, it’s even less likely.

I genuinely fear that a high presence of law enforcement in schools is just one of many ways we are moving further away from equity in the criminal justice system and closer to criminalizing typical adolescent behavior. I challenge you to find an adult who didn’t skip a class or play some kind of prank which, if witnessed by an authority figure, could have led them to trouble.

It breaks my heart to know that millions of students around the United States have a better chance of getting a court date than they do of having a meeting with a guidance counselor.

Our children deserve better than this.