What Does It Mean to Demilitarize Our Schools?

Jul 24, 2020 12:00:00 AM

by Paula White

My son was eight when he told me he was going to “quit school.” At first, I laughed, but after he said it again and insisted that he was serious, I listened. Turns out, what my son meant about quitting school was that he was going to have to leave home when he turned 18, before the end of the school year, because his birthday is in February. 

He didn’t understand that when his father and I said he had to go to college at 18, we didn’t mean he would have to pack up and move as soon as he blew out the candles on his birthday cake.

When I understood what he really meant, I became more somber and even shed a tear in empathy for his angst.

With radical-sounding movements swirling around us, it is easy to feel the kind of dread I felt when I had this conversation with my son several years ago. But similarly, if we take a moment to understand more fully what people are saying, the real meaning of their words will become much clearer.

Like my son’s assertion about quitting school, [pullquote position="right"]the call to demilitarize schools sounds drastic at first.[/pullquote] People assume that removing metal detectors and police from schools will lead to chaos and harm students and teachers. 

But teachers in my organization, Educators for Excellence-New York, support demilitarizing schools, because they know better. These changes are not about demonizing law enforcement. Nor do they reflect naïveté about the realities of our most challenging learning environments. Our teachers work in city public schools serving the most vulnerable: Youth of color. 

[pullquote]A militarized, policing-oriented approach to school climate increases the chance our students will experience police misconduct and reinforces the school-to-prison pipeline.[/pullquote] These are two key elements of institutionalized racism and White supremacy that deeply affect youth of color in our classrooms. As their educators, members of Educators for Excellence-New York never want our students to experience police brutality or enter the criminal justice system.

Our position is a call for policymakers and district leaders to listen to the voices of educators. We want them to bring data to bear in a conversation that must always center the safety of students and teachers. A recent national report found that 95% of teachers surveyed want more opportunities to influence the policies that affect their students. 

School district leaders have a full view of what is happening in schools. They see all the moving parts: The curriculum and instruction, health and wellness initiatives, and social service supports in place for their students. That is why, if we are to have school resource officers, they must be supervised by school district leaders—not local police departments—to ensure students’ needs are met through a coordinated framework of training and responses.

Of course, like all public spaces, there may come a time when law enforcement must be dispatched to a school building to manage an emergent situation. However, this should be a rare event, not permanently embedded in the way teachers and students experience school.

But what about our most challenging learning environments? As an educator, the operative word I’ll focus on in this sentence is “learning.” Schools are places to learn. And so, we must teach. Teach social-emotional competencies. Teach conflict acceptance, not avoidance as a normal part of life. And teach healthy ways to resolve those conflicts when they arise. 

When schools teach these skills, they cast a wide net that covers most of the children who enter their tutelage and care. Equally important, they create an early warning system. Schools that teach these skills quickly spot children whose needs exceed staff capacity. School staff can then guide these young people and their families to additional services and programs that meet their needs more deeply and effectively.

Over the past five years in New York City, major crime in schools has dropped by 32%. Folks might not be aware of this due to a handful of high-profile, horrendous incidents of violence. But we know that when those incidents have occurred, they happened in schools with clear evidence of highly dysfunctional, uncaring school cultures. They weren’t schools who were teaching skills to help students manage their feelings and solve conflicts peacefully. In these settings, students feel they must adopt a survival mentality.

Yet the goal of school attendance is to thrive, not just survive. The only way to do that is to pay attention to the whole student and the whole environment. A school safety system founded on the wrong assumptions and focusing on the wrong things cannot make that happen. 

We can’t create new safety systems in schools haphazardly, either. That won’t make anyone safer and will rightly spark ire from teachers and families who must be present in these settings daily. [pullquote]We all need to understand that demilitarizing schools means systematically building school culture to enhance student safety both physically and emotionally.[/pullquote]

As young and old alike reimagine the world with an unparalleled sense of possibility, we will hear harsh, jarring words that will evoke equally harsh and jarring responses. Like my son and I did in our memorable talk, let’s hear each other out, to understand before we seek to be understood. It’s not as bad as we think.

Paula White

Paula White is the executive director of Educators for Excellence's (E4E) flagship chapter in New York City, serving a membership of 14,000+ public school educators who seek to use their voices to elevate the teaching profession and improve outcomes for children. Paula spent nine years working in Atlanta Public Schools, where she accelerated learning for the children she taught, all of whom were living in poverty in the face of many systemic challenges. She went on to found a public charter school, and later led an initiative that brought trauma-informed practices to traditional public schools in New York City. From 2013 to 2016, Paula served as the New Jersey Department of Education’s chief turnaround officer, successfully leading the state's efforts to improve outcomes in its 200+ lowest-achieving public schools. Later, as a state director for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), she supported and challenged legislators to advance policies related to student success. Her contributions have also included serving on the editorial board of a professional journal for teachers, and being a state-appointed member of the New Jersey Council for Young Children. Paula holds degrees from Spelman College and Columbia University. She is fueled by a deep desire to narrow the gap between intent and impact wherever work is being done for the benefit of children. She is the author of "SHAPE: The Five Keys to Parenting from Research & Real Life," and her most treasured role is being a mom to her three sons.

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