These Teachers Refuse to Be Weaponized

Michelle Chen March 1, 2018

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The call to arm the teach­ers”’ start­ed as anoth­er stink bomb Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump lobbed into the crowd at a con­ser­v­a­tive ral­ly. But some­how, the con­cept cycled through the 24-hour news loop and, with­in a few hours, became a ubiq­ui­tous meme. Now, the moral­ly repug­nant idea of gun-tot­ing teach­ers in America’s schools has tak­en cen­ter stage in the nation’s macabre debate on gun safety.

The idea of weaponiz­ing teach­ers was incen­di­ary bait for Trump’s base. But some pro­gres­sive edu­ca­tors are seiz­ing the chaot­ic polit­i­cal moment to address the deep­er social prob­lems that breed vio­lence and fear among stu­dents. These advo­cates believe that achiev­ing real secu­ri­ty” is not mere­ly a mat­ter of elim­i­nat­ing guns, but must also involve social trans­for­ma­tion to pro­mote peace with­in — and beyond — school communities.

Rosie Fras­cel­la, an Eng­lish teacher at Inter­na­tion­al High School at Prospect Heights in Brook­lyn, says vio­lence per­vades her stu­dents’ every­day lives, but in a dif­fer­ent social con­text than the Park­land mas­sacre. Her stu­dents face the rou­tine bru­tal­i­ty of oppres­sive polic­ing in their streets, includ­ing the con­stant threat of bru­tal­i­ty and arbi­trary arrests of Black and Lati­no youth, as well as insti­tu­tion­al­ized seg­re­ga­tion in the city’s school and hous­ing sys­tems. Those every­day aggres­sions, along with a media cul­ture flood­ed with glam­or­ized images of vio­lence and mas­culin­i­ty, pose a more present social threat than the prospect of an active shoot­er” on cam­pus. Fras­cel­la sees her job not just as a teacher, but as a life coach” — a care­giv­er and trust­ed adult who pro­vides emo­tion­al guid­ance. She does­n’t want to add secu­ri­ty guard” to that job description.

Our job is to deesca­late, to pro­tect, to lis­ten, to love, care for our stu­dents,” Fras­cel­la says. Achiev­ing real safe­ty is not about hav­ing more secu­ri­ty, or hav­ing more police or met­al detec­tors,” she argues. It’s more about hav­ing more staff to be able to have one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions, licensed ther­a­pists … who can be there, who can lis­ten.” In Frascella’s dis­trict and across the coun­try, many dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents have already been vic­tim­ized by vio­lence — whether it takes the form of inter­per­son­al con­flict and bul­ly­ing or pun­ish­ment from the crim­i­nal legal sys­tem. For young men wrestling dai­ly with mas­cu­line iden­ti­ty in a cul­ture that val­ues patri­archy and force over care and respect, many teach­ers fear that more school secu­ri­ti­za­tion only fuels a tox­ic school climate.

If we real­ly want to stop the vio­lence that’s hap­pen­ing in our soci­ety,” Fras­cel­la empha­sizes, I think we need to deal with the trau­ma that a lot of our stu­dents are facing.”

Lois Wein­er, Direc­tor of the Urban Edu­ca­tion and Teacher Union­ism Project at New Jer­sey City Uni­ver­si­ty, says that the con­ver­sa­tion around school safe­ty should lead with edu­ca­tors seek­ing to frame the whole issue of these school shoot­ings not just in terms of gun con­trol, which has been the exclu­sive focus, but in terms of vio­lence in our society.”

Under a broad­er frame­work of school safe­ty, Wein­er says, a safe envi­ron­ment means peo­ple feel pro­tect­ed, every­body feels val­ued, every­body feels respect­ed, and prob­lems with behav­ior are dealt with in an appro­pri­ate way for those kids and for the peo­ple who’ve been harmed. It’s a total­ly dif­fer­ent dis­cus­sion … And that’s what I want to see lead­er­ship from the nation­al unions on.”

Wein­er cau­tions against the lib­er­al impulse to pan­ic over mass shoot­ing events, with­out con­fronting under­ly­ing dri­vers of youth vio­lence, includ­ing cru­el aus­ter­i­ty bud­gets, con­ser­v­a­tive ide­ol­o­gy that pro­motes inequal­i­ty and a high­ly mil­i­ta­rized pub­lic cul­ture. This is an extreme­ly vio­lent soci­ety,” Wein­er says, and that vio­lence has been exac­er­bat­ed by cut­backs in social ser­vices and stress­es on fam­i­lies that are put on fam­i­lies and individuals.”

As civic insti­tu­tions, teach­ers’ unions could help lead the school secu­ri­ty con­ver­sa­tion at a time when edu­ca­tion is itself under attack. In West Vir­ginia, as law­mak­ers across the coun­try muse about arm­ing school per­son­nel, union­ized teach­ers are mobi­liz­ing for eco­nom­ic jus­tice by going on strike — demand­ing fair work­ing con­di­tions and more resources for some of the nation’s poor­est school districts.

School safe­ty should be tack­led coop­er­a­tive­ly, says Wein­er, with school staff engag­ing the wider com­mu­ni­ty by build­ing mutu­al trust. Effec­tive solu­tions might even orig­i­nate from with­in com­mu­ni­ties through dia­logue with young peo­ple, fam­i­lies and advo­ca­cy groups work­ing togeth­er on pro­grams to address vio­lent sit­u­a­tions involv­ing youth. These pro­grams could include restora­tive jus­tice ini­tia­tives to pro­mote con­flict res­o­lu­tion, or reforms to secu­ri­ty poli­cies to lim­it the role of police inter­ven­tion in pub­lic schools.

Reha­bil­i­ta­tive solu­tions are cru­cial in neigh­bor­hoods where over-polic­ing is a chief source of vio­lence against young peo­ple. Today, even with­out armed teach­ers in class­rooms, pat­terns of puni­tive bru­tal­i­ty have inflict­ed dis­pro­por­tion­ate harm against chil­dren of col­or, as well as those with dis­abil­i­ties, under zero-tol­er­ance school polic­ing and harsh dis­ci­pli­nary pro­grams. These hard­line agen­das have result­ed in dis­parate expul­sion rates for Black stu­dents and wide­spread use of force­ful restraints of defi­ant” children.

The idea of arm­ing teach­ers ignores the fact that in schools serv­ing low-income kids of col­or, often school’s already like prison,” Wein­er says.

A steroidal ver­sion of this enforce­ment-heavy approach in now being show­cased in Flori­da, where law­mak­ers recent­ly approved leg­is­la­tion aimed at deploy­ing 37,000 trained school mar­shals,” teach­ers dep­u­tized as armed guards, to schools across the state.

Edu­ca­tors warn that the fur­ther mil­i­ta­riza­tion of schools will almost cer­tain­ly endan­ger more chil­dren than it protects.

As a teacher in a city known for zero-tol­er­ance police crack­downs on young men of col­or in schools and on the streets, Fras­cel­la says, Arm­ing peo­ple is just going to cre­ate more heart­break, and peo­ple mak­ing real­ly poor deci­sions, because they haven’t actu­al­ly dealt with the racism or the sex­ism that they’ve been taught in society.”

Activists say that end­ing vio­lence in young people’s lives isn’t about lock­ing them down but rais­ing them up to the chal­lenges of a hos­tile world. For Fras­cel­la and her fel­low teach­ers, build­ing peace means work­ing with city pol­i­cy­mak­ers, who have been mov­ing to tran­si­tion from zero-tol­er­ance school-safe­ty approach­es to a more proac­tive con­cept of school jus­tice.” But the task of recon­struct­ing the frame­work of jus­tice in city schools is mired in the every­day chal­lenges of chron­ic under­staffing, aca­d­e­m­ic pres­sure from test-dri­ven cur­ric­u­la, and bud­gets that deprive schools of funds for basic sup­plies — much less extra counselors.

But there’s one resource that pro­gres­sive teach­ers can always draw upon for free: the strength that rad­i­cal­ized Park­land stu­dents showed as they launched mas­sive protests and inspired waves of sol­i­dar­i­ty actions nation­wide, demand­ing that law­mak­ers act to curb gun vio­lence. Right now, I want to just lis­ten to the youth,” Fras­cel­la says. I feel very inspired by the orga­niz­ing that’s hap­pen­ing, and to see so many stu­dents come out and be pas­sion­ate about this issue, and real­ly being empow­ered to make changes. I think that’s the real­ly beau­ti­ful thing that came out of this tragedy.”

After Park­land, young people’s brav­ery in the face of sys­temic hos­til­i­ty offers a les­son edu­ca­tors and politi­cians can learn from. Per­haps that’s the only kind of edu­ca­tion that can tru­ly dis­arm society.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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