In the Wake of Uvalde, a Teacher's Plea for Police-Free Schools

My students are safer in classrooms without cops. The latest mass school shooting only makes that clearer.

Nataliya Braginsky

(Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

For educators like myself, no matter how far we teach from Uvalde, Texas, the recent mass shooting at Robb Elementary, like so many before it, is still palpable in our classrooms — among students and teachers alike.

Two days after the massacre, Toni Wright, one of my students in New Haven, Conn., stood in our high school’s hallway crying. I couldn’t even make it to school yesterday,” they told me. I got on the bus, I made it down the street, but I had to get off and tell my mom to come get me. I was so upset that it was physically hurting me to try to go to school.”

Toni’s peers might have felt this way too, but many students did not want to talk about the shooting. As Toni explained, I don’t think anyone knows how to talk about it without being like: it’s so sad, it happened again.’”

The massacre at Robb Elementary is the 51st school shooting of this academic year, according to Education Week. This database suggests that 2021-2022 has seen more school shootings than any previous recorded year in U.S. history.

As we yet again ask what should be done, students and teachers, who sit at the center of this crisis as its primary victims, must be decision makers at the forefront of any societal response. Instead, this shooting has prompted renewed calls by national Republican lawmakers to arm teachers. Twenty eight states already allow staff to carry guns in schools, and since the Uvalde shooting some are trying to make it even easier. In Ohio, where I grew up and attended public school, Republican lawmakers have fast-tracked approval of a bill that not only allows teachers to be armed, but also reduces the required training for carrying a gun in school from 737 hours to just 24 hours. These calls to arm educators come despite vehement opposition by my union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the largest teachers union in the country, the National Education Association (NEA).

Like fellow educators responding to the Uvalde school shooting, I agree that now is the time for us to double down on calls for comprehensive gun reform. But that is not enough. Now is also the time for us to stand in solidarity with our students in the fight for police-free schools.

Critics may say it’s the wrong time to take such action. But this is the exact moment to renew the demand for care, not cops. Previous high-profile school shootings have led to drastic increases in armed police in public schools. A 2020 report found that in response to the 2018 Parkland school shooting, the number of cops in Florida schools nearly doubled.

National studies have shown that the presence of police in schools leads to 3.5 times more arrests of youth, and in some states, as high as eight times more arrests. This approach criminalizes students for normal adolescent behavior, and these arrests disproportionately target Black students and students with disabilities, both of whom are three times more likely to be arrested by school police than their white and non-disabled counterparts. What’s more, many of these schools hire cops at the expense of counselors, nurses, school psychologists, and social workers — the very people who could play a crucial role in preventing school shootings and supporting students through the many traumatic crises they are facing.

Uvalde, Texas spends approximately 40 percent of its city budget on police, and the school district has its own six-officer police department. By now we have all heard that police were inside Robb Elementary minutes after the gunman entered, yet they failed to stop him. Thirty minutes later, nineteen cops were in the hallways of the school, while inside their classroom students repeatedly called 911 pleading for help. Outside, even more police handcuffed and pepper-sprayed parents who attempted to make their way into the school to save their children.

I wish this were allegory, but instead it is the unbearable reality.

In 2018, the armed officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. hid outside while a gunman carried out an attack that killed 17 people inside the school. When students and their families attempted to sue the police officer, a federal judge ruled that police were under no legal obligation to protect students from the shooter. 

The law itself recognizes the fallacy that police increase safety — it’s time that we do too.

The fact that police do not protect young people, even during a mass shooting, is damning enough. But the full truth is even worse. A 2021 study conducted by violence researcher Dr. Jillian Peterson examined the past nearly 40 years of school shootings and found that the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present.” This finding suggests that police presence does not prevent violence — instead, it potentially makes school shootings nearly three times more deadly. The study concluded, An armed officer on the scene was the number one factor associated with increased casualties after the perpetrators’ use of assault rifles or submachine guns.” 

On May 25, the day after the Robb Elementary School shooting, New Haven’s mayor informed staff of increased police presence in our schools. Despite their different political parties, this announcement echoed calls from GOP leaders such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who, hours after the shooting, proclaimed that the most effective tool for keeping kids safe is armed law enforcement on the campus.” Yet, what happened in Uvalde shows us that rather than actual protection, police provide the false illusion of safety. 

Young people — especially youth of color — have resisted these illusions of safety, and have envisioned and fought for alternatives. In Toni’s words, We protect ourselves better than the police do.” They added, the students of New Haven have said we don’t want police in our schools.”

A few weeks ago, Toni and hundreds of their peers from 12 local high schools marched in the streets of New Haven in a walkout organized by Citywide Youth Coalition. They demanded the removal of police from our schools, as well as the reallocation of $6 million from the police budget to public education, to be used specifically for mental health services, full-time nurses and additional school counselors.

Young people in New Haven and across the country have long been leading this struggle for police-free schools. In June 2020, many educators joined that fight, rallying for the removal of police from their schools and for investment in mental health supports. Since then, according to Education Week Library, 49 districts serving about 2 million children have ended their school policing programs or cut their budgets.” This is but a small fraction of all the school districts in the country, but it is a start. An AFT statement from June 2020 calling for separating police forces from schools” signals one possible avenue for nationwide efforts toward police-free schools. 

Teachers now have a critical choice to make, one laid out at a recent panel of high school organizers. Co-hosted by the Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective and the Zinn Education Project, this panel brought together 12 high schoolers from across the country to discuss their organizing in response to the crises of our time. As Catlyn Savado, a Chicago Public Schools student, put it: Teachers are either abolitionists or they’re police.” 

In the wake of yet another school shooting, calls to arm teachers are attempting to enlist us as police. But the answer to this moment isn’t becoming cops — and neither is it welcoming more cops into our schools. This moment, which we know will befall us again, calls for reimagining what true safety means, and working with our students to make that a reality. This moment, with all its grief and loss, calls on U.S. teachers to march alongside our students in the movement for police-free schools.

Nataliya Braginsky is a high school social studies and English teacher who has been working in schools since 2007.

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