Rutgers expert school violence prevention weighs in on whether beefed up security measures keep kids safe.

August’s annual back-to-school advertising blitz featured much of the same products parents have purchased for their students for decades.

But this year, in addition to the usual pens, pencils, notebooks, calculators, clothing and locker décor, retailers unveiled a new “must-have” for returning students: bulletproof backpacks.

Whether or not students return to class outfitted with bulletproof accessories, some will likely enter buildings outfitted with new bulletproof lobbies, metal detectors, cameras, guards and other beefed up security measures in response to previous school shootings and the highly publicized mass shootings in Ohio and Texas this summer.

Are these measures effective in protecting our students from school violence? We spoke with Matthew Mayer, associate professor with the Graduate School of Education, whose research focuses on school violence prevention and promoting safe and productive schools, to find out.

What are your thoughts on the new bulletproof backpacks? Will they provide adequate protection?

The bulletproof backpacks are ridiculous and sad. Retailers are preying on parents’ fears. How often do students wear backpacks in school?

What about other proposed school security measures – from installing cameras and bulletproof entries to arming teachers?

It makes sense to have one or two entrances to a school that are monitored and controlled so you know who is coming in. But we’ve learned that just having armed guards, metal detectors, and even locking the doors doesn’t deter a determined school shooter. Look at Columbine. Arming teachers is a very bad idea. Weapons can be stolen. Veteran police officers learn how to maintain a posture of clear thinking in a dangerous and chaotic situation, whereas a teacher with minimal firearms training and experience would likely be quite emotional. They could end up shooting innocent bystanders. I don’t think the answer is more guns. We have to start restricting assault weapons.

What effective measures can be taken to stem school violence?

An idea worth thinking about is trying to repair the trust and connectedness gap. Before the Parkland school shooting, kids and adults knew something was amiss but didn’t feel compelled to report to authorities. Sometimes it’s fear of snitching or ratting, but we are not well-connected and don’t have strong enough trust.

What created that trust gap?

Harsh discipline and zero tolerance policies. The theory is that if you nip it in the bud, it won’t get worse. But it ended up creating an authoritarian – punishment, control, and containment – environment, where you’re not going to have much trust.  But if you have a school where you see adults as the helpers who in good times and bad are there for the students, you’re going to have more trust.

How can teachers, parents, and administrators work to regain students’ trust?

An authoritative rather than authoritarian approach. It means the parents, teachers, and administrators provide structure, oversight, discipline, and consequences, but also a lot of love, support and nurturing and helping the kids take responsibility for their behavior and reconnect with others in the community to be successful. It is a balance. Research demonstrates that authoritative schools are the ones with much less bullying and violence with much healthier climates.

Why do we seem more focused on making physical security changes than behavioral changes?

When we think that all we’ve got to do is get cameras, armed guards, metal detectors and arm teachers, we are putting efforts into hardening the school instead of making it a better place with less violence and fewer problems. It becomes easier for the administration to check off a box that they have done something than to change a school’s culture. These simplistic solutions are part of the problem.

Inhumane Immigration Policies: Separating Children from Parents

United States Attorney General – Jeff Sessions

As of May 6th, 2018, new harsher immigration policies have been implemented with the sole intention of instilling terror to act as a deterrent to other immigrants attempting to enter the United States, regardless of the reason.  This comes as a result of “zero tolerance” policies enacted under Jeff Sessions.

Sadly the most vulnerable, the children, are impacted the greatest by this policy when they are now being routinely separated from their parents at the border while the parents of these children are being portrayed as criminals and being called animals by the President of the United States.

Kirstjen Nielsen has equated their attempt to enter the United States as the same as an individual that breaks into your home and has their child taken away as a result. The reality is far different. While a large number of individuals come because of economic push factors many of the individuals entering, particularly those with children, are fleeing violence and are legally seeking asylum in the United States for themselves and their children.

One woman from Honduras described the heart-wrenching experience of giving her 18 month old son to immigration authorities, and even strapping him in his car seat for them, despite following the proper protocol in presenting herself to immigration authorities to seek asylum. More than 600 children have already been separated from their parents in the first few weeks since the new policies were enacted.

Even before these new policies were officially implemented, there was another case several months ago involving a woman from Congo and her child who were separated at the border for four months, despite passing a credible fear test, and were later reunited as a result of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.

These immigration policies are meant to maximize suffering of those entering the country in order to act as a deterrent to future immigrants. This is in stark contrast to our values as a country, as well as our legal responsibilities.

The American Bar Association has condemned this new policy, citing increased inefficiency in the immigration court system as well as the psychological trauma of separating children from their parents. Sadly, many of the policies surrounding immigration have been archaic and draconian even before these new changes, including toddlers representing themselves in immigration court unless they have the ability to pay for a lawyer.

As social workers, we know the impact of early childhood adversity, and the NASW has spoken out against this new zero tolerance policy. Many of these children have faced great adversity prior to coming to the United States including witnessing or experiencing physical and sexual violence, living under threat due to violence in their communities, or being targeted specifically because of who they are—aside from the possible trauma experienced on their journey to the United States.

Research demonstrates the incredible resiliency of children in being able to bounce back from adversity, and one crucial component to that is in having one stable adult in their lives. This current immigration policy seeks to traumatize the families and potentially takes away the one resiliency factor the children have.

What can we do to help? There are several agencies that are working to help this population that you can connect to. It is crucial to apply pressure on elected representatives and vote in upcoming elections.

Most importantly, we must fight against the notion that it is ok to dehumanize immigrants.

Zero Tolerance Policies Unfairly Punish Black Girls

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Black girls are disproportionately punished in American schools – an “overlooked crisis” that is populating the school-to-prison pipeline at rising rates, two education scholars argue in a new paper.

Dorinda Carter Andrews, associate professor at Michigan State University, and Dorothy Hines-Datiri, assistant professor at the University of Kansas and former doctoral student at MSU, cite various examples of black girls in elementary school being handcuffed and taken away in police cars for classroom disruptions such as temper tantrums.

These zero tolerance policies unfairly target students of color and should be abolished, Carter Andrews said. But while a wealth of research and public discussion has focused on black male students, little attention has been paid to the mistreatment of black girls in U.S. classrooms, she said.

“Zero tolerance constructs these young girls as criminals,” Carter Andrews said. “It’s a criminalization of their childhood, and it’s a very prison-type mentality for schools to take.”

The paper, which appears online in the journal Urban Education, notes that zero tolerance is defined as a form of school discipline that imposes removal from school for an array of violations, from violence to truancy to dress code violations. Black students are two to three times more likely to be suspended than white students and are overrepresented in office referrals, expulsions and corporal punishment, the paper says.

Black female students in the United States receive out-of-school suspensions at higher rates (12 percent) than female students across all other racial and ethnic categories, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Only black boys (20 percent) and American Indian/Alaska native boys (13 percent) have higher suspension rates than black girls.

Black girls are also more likely to receive harsher discipline than their white peers for minor offenses, such as talking back to the teacher, Carter Andrews said.

“The research shows that teachers and other adults may give a pass to certain students for the ways in which they talk back,” she said. “Teachers may view some girls, particularly African-American girls, as attitudinal or aggressive, even though they may be using the same talk-back language as a white female student.”

In addition to the abolishment of zero tolerance policies, the researchers call for the establishment of culturally responsive professional-development training for educators that would raise their awareness of the experiences of girls of color.

“We cannot afford to have more black girls’ identities snuffed out by disciplinary policies and ultimately the educational and criminal justice systems,” the study says.

Zero Tolerance Policies Hurt Minorities and Students with Disabilities in Pennsylvania’s Public Schools

There has been many heated discussions throughout the country regarding the disparities of zero tolerance policies implemented in our nation’s public schools.  Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania released a report that outlined startling statistics regarding the number of African-American, and Latino students, and students with disabilities who were disproportionately affected by zero tolerance policies within Pennsylvania’s public schools.

The report, titled “Beyond Zero Tolerance:  Discipline and Policing Pennsylvania’s Public Schools” disclosed the high numbers of minorities and students with disabilities being suspended at greater rates than their white and able-bodied peers.  During the 2011-2012 academic year, there were over 166,000 out-of-school suspensions issued by school districts.  To give you a better understanding of this figure, 10 out of 100 students in Pennsylvania’s public schools were suspended during this particular academic term.

Zero Tolerance 1The disparities in race and disability are taken into account when one reviews the number of minority and students with disabilities that attend Pennsylvania’s public schools, and how these students comprised the high percentages of students who received disciplinary action that resulted in suspension, expulsions, and arrests.  African American students made up only 13.6% of the population that attended Pennsylvania schools, but they accounted for close to half of the out-of-school suspensions reported by school districts.  One out of every 10 Latino students were suspended at least once during the 2011-2012 school year; this is the highest figure reported concerning Latino students and suspension in the country, according to the ACLU.  Students with disabilities did not fair much better; students with disabilities were suspended at a 11.1% rate.  In comparison to their peers, students with disabilities faced the fate of being twice as likely to experience suspension.

In the ACLU’s report, the organization noted the probable cause for these disparities revolved around the fact that zero tolerance policies cast out a very wide net that catches “undesirable,” or disruptive behaviors and actions.  These behaviors and actions were deemed unacceptable by school districts, and are judged as grounds for punishment.

The ACLU proposed several suggestions for school districts to consider when it comes to the disparities surrounding zero tolerance policies.  Full-scale review of current suspension policies, utilize intensive disciplinary actions only when there is a imminent danger to safety of the offending student and/or others, and fully evaluating the true effectiveness of law enforcement officials within the schools were a few of the recommendations issued by the ACLU.

Reading the striking findings of this report hopefully enlightens us about the covert inequities of blanket polices like zero tolerance in our public schools.  Such blanket policies are detrimental to the students who are more likely to be disproportionately represented and unfairly labeled as “troublemakers.”  These policies also prove to be inflexible in appropriately discerning between behaviors that are indeed disruptive to the school environment and/or place students and staff in danger versus behaviors conducted that may be due to cultural differences, problems experienced by students within the home environment, cognitive limitations, etc.  Without taking these possible reasons for the occurrence of these behaviors into consideration, we end up mislabeling these students as recalcitrant and fail to look deeper into the actual cause(s) of their misconduct.

To the educators, parents, and students out there, what issues have your school districts encountered with zero tolerance policies?  Have your school district reported similar trends in high percentages of suspensions, expulsions, and arrest among minority students and students with disabilities?  If so, what steps have been taken to ameliorate these disparities?  Do you believe zero tolerance policies work effectively at extinguishing all forms of misconduct in schools, no matter how minor or severe the behavior?  Tell me your thoughts and experiences by sending an email to, or by visiting my website, Ramp Your Voice!

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of WTAE.) 

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