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Illinois gets it: Schools need therapists, not more armed guards

This piece orignailly appeared on Salon

Some Illinois lawmakers are proposing that schools receive extra funding to replace law enforcement in schools with mental health services — a direct rebuke to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump and other Republican lawmakers who believe arming teachers and adding police in schools is the answer to making schools safer.

Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch, D-IL., told the Associated Press that he devised this proposal after advocates alerted him that providing mental health resources is the strongest method of curbing violence. "His plan, which is backed by 16 other Democrats in the House, would allow schools to apply to an optional grant if they promise to reallocate funding for school-based law enforcement to mental health services, including social workers or other practices 'designed to promote school safety and healthy environments,'" the AP reported.

It will likely face pushback, given the climate after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where many lawmakers pushed for more armed law enforcement officers in schools. More than 100 school safety bills or resolutions have been proposed in 39 states, since the Valentine's Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, according to the AP. At least one third of those involve putting armed officers in schools, under the name "school resource officers." Sessions proposed a school safety plan in March that would prioritize grants to states that promise to hire more school resource officers.

Parkland students and young activists across the country have called on lawmakers to take concrete action and devise policy around school safety under the banner of the #NeverAgain movement. When I attended a school walkout last month, not a single student advocated for more militarized schools. Nonetheless, Stoneman Douglas High School has already beefed up its security, with Florida highway patrol troopers serving in the school in the interim, CNN reported. Gov. Rick Scott requested that an armed law enforcement official stand guard at every school entrance.

Beyond the language coming out of the anti-gun student violence movement, this increased police presence puts black students in disproportionate danger. Black students represent just 16 percent of public school enrollment but 31 percent of school-related arrests, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Black students are also three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled, which significantly increases one's chances of entering the juvenile justice system. In the same way black adults are targeted, arrested and incarcerated at disproportionate rates to their white counterparts, the same is true for black students in schools.

This path from schools to incarceration is known as the "school-to-prison-pipeline." Bahiyyah Muhammad, assistant professor of criminology at Howard University, said that when "draconian laws find themselves in a school system, instead of a place of social service, it's turned into a prison."

"This increased presence of law enforcement in schools does not necessarily enhance school safety," Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley from the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law told the AP. "Instead it dramatically increases the likelihood that students will be unnecessarily swept into the criminal justice system often for mere adolescent or disruptive behavior."

Welch's plan for Illinois seems to heed the warnings of the school-to-prison pipeline. Whereas the pipeline incarcerates students rather than providing mental health and other social services, Welch's proposal advocates for the inverse.

Deputy Kip Heinle, former president of the Illinois School Resource Officers Association, told AP that the officers are "the best line of defense to keep students safe in school." But Marc Schindler, head of the Justice Policy Institute, told NPR there is no clear evidence that shows school resource officers bolster school safety. "In fact, the data really shows otherwise — that this is largely a failed approach in devoting a significant amount of resources but not getting the outcome in school safety that we are all looking for," he said.

Indeed, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had a school resource officer on duty when suspect Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people.

This piece orignailly appeared on Salon



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