Calling B.S. On Current School Safety Efforts: Legislators, Not Educators, Must Act To Protect Schools From Mass Murderers
A SSWN Editorial by Kate Phillippo Ph.D., LCSW & Michael S. Kelly Ph.D., LCSW
Like millions of Americans, we were horrified to learn of yet another school mass murder, this time at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. We individually processed our reactions as we talked with loved ones, sifted through news sources, read our Facebook feeds, and talked with our students and professional colleagues in the fields of school social work and education. We were inspired by the Stoneman Douglas high school students who angrily spoke out out and started translating their grief into activism. Both of us looked at all of this and came to the same conclusion: K-12 educators cannot singlehandedly eliminate mass murders in our schools, and it is dangerously wrong to expect them to do so.
As experienced school social work researchers and practitioners, we know the insides of K-12 schools. We have developed and carried out interventions with young people struggling with loss, trauma, family disruption, poverty, illness, discrimination, and violence. Many a time, we have fully understood why students struggled in systems that seemed to treat them callously, if not unjustly, and we took actions to promote equitable, caring treatment of students. We have worked with students and educators before and after incidents of school violence. We have worked with competent, compassionate educators. They have impressed us with their presence and care at incredibly difficult times for them and their students.
And yet, as Stoneman Douglas student Emma Gonzalez said at a rally after the shooting, we “call B.S.” on the current narrative on how schools are expected to respond to school mass murder. More caring, more vigilant schools combined with “thoughts and prayers” aren’t enough to prevent school mass murder. We “call B.S.” on all the exhortations for caring schools to serve as an antidote to, even a vaccination against, mass murder in schools.
To be sure, our schools are not perfect. Educators, education researchers and education policymakers have miles to go to ensure that school discipline practices are equitable and developmentally responsive to young people, and that they promote educational engagement and achievement rather than alienation. Likewise, we can do better to recognize and respond to student grief, trauma, aggression and untreated mental illness. Nikolas Cruz, the alleged gunman, has given us a devastating reminder of this work’s urgency. He was expelled from Stoneman Douglas, experienced the death of both of his adoptive parents, and showed clear, persistent signs of emotional disturbance at school. We must make sure that our schools are nurturing, safe, responsive spaces for all students.
At the same time, it is completely unrealistic to expect schools to prevent the mass murders of their own students and educators. When we issue calls for educators to take action—to provide de-escalation training, promote student resilience, increase school security, and identify, serve and possibly report to authorities students who show signs of dangerous disturbance—we edge perilously close towards holding educators responsible for school shootings.
Educational historian David Labaree claims that America is afflicted with the “school syndrome.” In Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling (Harvard University Press, 2010), Labaree wrote that we repeatedly, compulsively ask schools to address whatever we see as problems in American society. Perceived problems from obesity to sexual promiscuity to a lackluster international economy become schools’ problems and responsibilities. Popular and political pressure too often culminates in schools getting saddled with yet more social problems to address. Here, again, many of our fellow Americans ask schools to solve the social problem that has violently forced its way through their doors: armed individuals seeking to harm and kill students and educators.
Of course, more school social workers and other school mental health professionals will help. De-escalation skills will help. Social-emotional learning curriculum will help. Improved security will help. But none of these actions will keep guns—some of which fire over forty rounds per minute—out of the hands of people, like Cruz, who have a long-standing, documented history of disturbing, aggressive behaviors. The above efforts—which are necessary for many reasons, not just to allegedly “prevent” mass murders in schools—will not succeed. We will again be relegated to hopes and prayers for victims and survivors.
This will happen because, as a nation, we don’t yet want to keep those guns away from people like the latest school mass murderer. A critical mass of our fellow Americans genuinely believes that school mass murders committed by troubled young people is the cost of the freedom that the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment guarantees them. They claim that good guys with guns will stop bad guys with guns, and fantasize that armed educators could somehow stop gunmen in schools. (We now know that the armed officer in Parkland didn’t even go into the school when he could have stopped the shooter.) They also claim that we need better mental health funding. We agree in principle, but must call B.S. once again: mental health state and federal budget line items haven’t increased. We see here an effort to reframe school mass murder not as a public health emergency, but rather as a matter of individual character flaws, family dysfunction, and mental health problems. Emphasis on how schools can prevent mass murders pile on even more blame, dressed up as “support” and “encouragement” for schools to become safer. We ignore obvious structural and cultural reasons why school mass murders happen, and obsess over flaws in individuals and their educators. Ironically, our choice of a “safer” path puts our students and educators in grave danger.
We also want to offer a global perspective on the structural problems in the United States that put students and educators in danger. The U.S. comes in 50th out of 163 nations on the Institute for Economics and Peace’s annual rankings. In a ranking of countries from most dangerous (#1) to least (#163), we come in right behind China and El Salvador, and just ahead of Rwanda and Armenia. Meanwhile, where is Canada, a country with guns that are both widely available and heavily regulated? 156th. Ranked near Canada, we find Australia (#152), the country that decided in the mid-1990s to buy back weapons after a mass shooting and hasn’t had a mass shooting since. These rankings tell us that America is not exceptional at all here, just a middle-of-the pack, dangerous country. How on earth would our schools change this?
One powerful statement school students and educators can plan to make about how to make their schools safer is, ironically, to vacate them. On March 14th, and again on April 20th (the anniversary of the Columbine school mass murder), the National School Walkout (Twitter: @schoolwalkoutUS) will call young people and the educators to walk out into the larger community and to put the responsibility for stopping this madness where it belongs. It belongs with our politicians, and the people who elect them.
Kate Phillippo, Ph.D. is Associate Professor, Cultural and Educational Policy Studies School of Education, Loyola University Chicago Michael S. Kelly Ph.D is the co-editor of SSWN and Associate Professor at Loyola Chicago School of Social Work. Both of them were school social workers in the Chicago area for a combined 20 years.