January 24, 2013 | Vol. 116 -- No. 40

Gun control debate misses the point for school safety

Guest Commentary

As professors of sociology and criminology, we would like to say we are pleased that conversations about how to make schools safer are occurring across the nation.

Prompted by the tragic shooting of 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., as well as the now-decades long spate of school and campus mass shooters, this dialogue should provide opportunities for those who spend their days with children and youth to share their expertise about what will keep our schools safe.

Instead, these dialogues are micro-focused, centering on the weapons used in the atrocities, rather than the more macro issue of school climate.

The contentious debate about gun control may represent a small piece of the answer, but it will never be all of it. Gun advocates assert that it is more—more guns, more armed people (including teachers) and more officers in schools—that will ensure our children are not mowed down by an assault weapon-yielding maniac. It is, they assert, the American way, and our Constitutional right, to pack heat wherever we go.

These arguments are deeply seated in a neoliberal philosophy that equates manhood to violence, asserts that government-sponsored gun control is akin to fascism, and promotes the sort of rugged individualism that characterizes the typical American response to complex social issues.

Gun control advocates want to restrict who can have guns and the type of guns they can have, as well as increase penalties for those having guns in places like schools. The argument is that decreasing access and enhancing penalties will deter would-be criminals from getting guns and wreaking havoc with them.

Although this camp is lobbying for more government involvement when it comes to guns, it is also steeped in the neoliberal tradition of focusing on micro-level solutions to macro-level problems. Echoing the nation’s decades-long, ineffective war on drugs, the proposed gun-control solutions are all aimed at the supply-side, and they serve to deflect attention from the critical question of why so many people feel compelled to purchase, load, and utilize lethal weapons.

What is needed instead is a critical examination of the school environment, including how our schools are structured, what they teach, and how they do so. Numerous academic studies have found school climate to be the most important protective factor when it comes to violence.

School climate is related not just to school shootings, that although horrifying when they happen are actually quite rare, but to other forms of violence that young people experience on a daily basis—physical, emotional, and verbal bullying by peers and by teachers, sexual harassment, in many schools, corporal punishment.

The schools in which these forms of violence are least likely are those in which all persons are treated with dignity. Safe schools are structured in ways that reduce or eliminate hierarchies.

Safe schools are not, like so many schools today, built like and operate like prisons. Safe schools use instructional methods in which power is shared, rather than the more traditional “sage on the stage” presentation that emphasizes the educator’s power over students.

Safe schools employ diverse and creative disciplinary strategies rather than suspending or expelling the problem back into the community or overly policing students. The schools in which violence in all its forms is less common are those in that the curricula emphasizes peace, social justice, and human rights and students are empowered to take action to better the community.

To make our schools more peaceful, we need to teach about and for peace. Peace educators have a lot to offer about this. Too bad no one is asking.

Laura Finley and Luigi Esposito teach in the Barry University Department of Sociology and Criminology and are syndicated by PeaceVoice.

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