This fall, students are heading back to school with the memory of the Uvalde, Texas shooting still fresh. Instead of excitement about new backpacks and first-day-of-school outfits, many children and their families are worrying about safety.
Unfortunately, while students took their summer break, lawmakers at all levels were hard at work passing laws that will make schools less safe.
Congress, for example, passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act — which does many good things, but may also contribute to the growing militarization of schools.
On the positive side, the bill included some modest gun control measures and provided significant, long-overdue resources to address mental health needs in public schools. But it also put $300 million toward controversial “school safety” measures. This will likely increase funding for School Resource Officers, or SROs.
Time and again, these officers have failed to prevent school shootings. Instead, they’ve been shown to target students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students for harassment and even arrest. As a result, students feel like they’re being policed rather than educated, which makes it more difficult to learn.
Meanwhile at the state level, extremist lawmakers are passing much harsher laws targeting both teachers and students.
So far, 18 states have banned transgender students from participating in sports. Ten have issued gag orders on any classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation — including Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law and a Kansas law which makes it a misdemanor to mention “homosexuality” in any context. And some have even passed laws to limit or ban trans health care for minors, with many more considering bans of their own.
These vicious attacks on young people are deadly serious. Already, LGBTQ students are more likely to miss school because of safety concerns. Around half of LGBTQ youth have reported “seriously considering” suicide in the last year.
Also over the summer, laws targeting the teaching of history and race went into effect in Florida, South Dakota, and Georgia. These laws, now passed in at least 13 states, not only prevent students from learning essential history, but may also make it more difficult for minority students to learn.
As a Black student, I attended a primarily white high school. I can’t tell you how valuable it was when an English teacher actively encouraged me to read and research stories about writers that looked like me. When I felt my identity being acknowledged, I grew through my education.
These policies seek to do the opposite — to muzzle a generation of students so that they don’t learn about themselves. As one LGBTQ student in eastern Tennessee put it: “Am I not allowed to mention myself?”
Together these attacks present a clear affront to the mental, developmental, and physical health and safety of children. So what can be done to ensure real safety as they return to school?
For starters, studies have shown that emphasizing mental health and restorative justice over policing can improve school safety. Dozens of districts across the country have been reducing their reliance on police officers in schools and finding success with alternative models.
We’ll also need action to reverse harmful policies that target students. In June, President Biden issued an executive order with the goal of a protecting transgender students by promoting gender-affirming health care. That’s a modest but positive step at the federal level.
Ultimately, community based action is even more crucial. Supporting the ongoing efforts of organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Advocates for Youth is one way to do this. Supporting student-led efforts like March for Our Lives is another.
Students are demanding something simple, but overlooked: respect. Our schools won’t be safer until policy makers start showing it.