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Debate on Armed Police in Schools: Needed for Kid Safety or Part of the Student-to-Prison Pipeline?

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As the National Rifle Association pushes for armed guards in every school, we host a debate over what type of security measures should be taken in schools to prevent future tragedies. On Monday, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools proposed forming the school system’s own police force. We’re joined by Sean Burke, president of the School Safety Advocacy Council; and Damon Hewitt, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and co-author of “The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One month after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, we turn now to a growing debate over what types of security measures should be taken in schools to prevent future tragedies. The NRA has just launched a new campaign called “Stand Up and Fight” as part of its push to place armed officers in every school. The NRA issued this new ad criticizing President Obama on Tuesday.

NRA AD: Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools, when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he’s just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security—protection for their kids, and gun-free zones for ours.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre first made the call for armed guards in U.S. schools last month during a press conference.

WAYNE LAPIERRE: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. I call on Congress today to act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation, and to do it now, to make sure that blanket safety is in place when our kids return to school in January.

AMY GOODMAN: The call for armed guards is gaining momentum. On Monday, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools proposed forming the school system’s own police force.

For more, we turn now to a debate between two guests. In Boston, Sean Burke is with us, president of the School Safety Advocacy Council. He was formerly director of public safety for the Lawrence Public School’s Police/Safety Department, where he coordinated all safety efforts, including the creation of the school’s crisis plan, which now serves as a model throughout the country. His organization does not support the NRA call for armed volunteers, but it does support more efforts to place more police officers in schools.

And here in New York, Damon Hewitt is with us, director of the Education Practice Group at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In 2002, he launched the group’s Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline Initiative, which challenges racial disparities that criminalize students and push them out of schools. The Legal Defense Fund is one of the groups that submitted recommendations to Vice President Biden’s task force on guns.

Before we talk about the issue of guns in schools, I wanted to get your response, Damon Hewitt, to the ad that the NRA has just put out targeting President Obama’s daughters.

DAMON HEWITT: Thanks for having me, Amy.

You know, I think that ad is a perfect example of how the public debate is so polarized and so driven by a culture of fear instead of a culture of solutions. We really have to move beyond rhetoric and beyond fear and really start to talk about how do we meaningfully keep schools safe, how do we develop not just school environments, but also environments in our communities where we won’t have these kinds of fears, where we won’t be afraid of mass shootings and all of these assault weapons, which are just so rampant in this country today.

AMY GOODMAN: Sean Burke, would you like to respond to the ad that says, “Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards?” Do you think this is appropriate?

SEAN BURKE: Good morning, Amy.

And I also don’t like anything that—that is bent out of fear. I don’t think that fear is going to be good for school safety. I don’t think fear is good for the United States. And I don’t think it’s going to produce anything that’s going to be positive in the way of changes in school safety. So, I don’t think it’s an appropriate ad to be running in the United States, no.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sean Burke, can you elaborate your responses to the Newtown shooting and what you think ought to be done to increase safety in schools?

SEAN BURKE: Well, first of all, we promote reasonableness. I don’t think there is—there is call to go off on wild tangents or go out of the norm with a lot of ideas that are coming up nowadays. I think that we should be going back and putting an emphasis on things that we were doing, somewhat limited, before the shooting, but take advantage of this now, this public outcry that things have to be done in school.

I think that, ultimately, the only good thing the NRA does say is that there should be a police officer in every school, a well-trained police officer in every school. But we know that’s not a reasonable request in today’s budgetary area. So, what we proposed is a program called LEEP, Law Enforcement Enhancement Procedures, where patrol officers, while they’re doing their routine duties, or officers that are reserves promoting other duties, would stop by schools, have satellite offices in schools, get to know the administration, get to know the children that attend there, forge relationships. And, by that, it will be a deterrent for violence in the school. It will serve as police officers becoming more knowledgeable of the layout in case there is an emergency, and really promote safer schools by just that regular visiting on your daily patrol.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Damon Hewitt, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund co-authored a report called “Police in Schools Are Not the Answer to the Newtown Shooting.” So can you respond to what Sean Burke said and what your report recommends?

DAMON HEWITT: Sure. Well, we think—we think we have to learn from the past, and not-so-distant past, in particular the tragedy at Columbine High School and the reactions thereto. We know that in—with the best of intentions, police officers were placed in many schools throughout Colorado, throughout the United States. We also know that in Denver public schools, for example, in the five years after the Columbine tragedy, we saw a 71 percent increase in referrals of students to law enforcement by schools, and the vast majority, over 90 percent of those referrals, were not for anything that was remotely dangerous at all.

What we started to see was that the line between matters of school safety and matters of school discipline have become completely blurred. In essence, throughout the country now, school resource officers, some of which are paid for at times by federal dollars, are actually becoming—or functioning, rather, as the disciplinary arm of schools. They’re actually enforcing discipline codes and criminalizing students for behavior that most of us wouldn’t consider criminal, things like using profanity, running in the classroom, talking back to teachers—behavior that should be disciplined, and students shouldn’t do those things, but they certainly shouldn’t get a citation, summons or arrest for those kinds of activities.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of police officers—the idea that Sean Burke is putting forward, of police officers casually being in the schools so they can get to know them more easily, but in so doing, they’re in the schools?

DAMON HEWITT: Well, what we understand is this: You know, the call for a police officer in every school, in some communities that may give the appearance of safety, but it’s just that, the appearance. What we know is that this won’t keep us safer. There was a guard on duty at Columbine High School when that tragedy happened. At Virginia Tech, where Colin Goddard—when that tragedy happened, we know that there was an entire police force. So this isn’t going to keep us safe. What actually keeps us safe is the root cause solutions that the administration is working on. And also what keeps us safe is having a safe, functioning, healthy school environment, where children aren’t afraid of police officers, but children actually can engage their school leaders, they can engage their teachers, on matters of instruction or matters of a healthy climate, instead of feeling like their school is being treated like a prison.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sean Burke, can you respond to what Damon Hewitt said and address specifically whether you have any concerns about a large number of police officers in schools playing a role—a disciplinary role, not just a security one?

SEAN BURKE: Well, the first point is that, of course, people are going to feel safer with a police officer in your school. I think any citizen that is doing nothing wrong feels much safer with a police officer nearby. You’re going to have a decreased fear of crime. Once you get to know that officer and develop a relationship with him, you’re going to feel comfortable with him. So I think the notion or any idea put forward that you’re not going to feel safer with a police offer in school, I don’t agree with that at all.

Secondly, to address the issue of the Columbine shooting, there was an SRO on duty, and the SRO exchanged fire with the gunmen before they entered the school, delaying their entrance into the school, thus cutting back—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sorry, Sean Burke, can you explain what an SRO is?

SEAN BURKE: A school resource officer is a certified police officer, and they’re usually from a sheriff’s department or a police department. And they work cooperatively with the education, with the school district, and they work full time in the school. They’re part of the administration team. They are highly trained to deal with issues such as special education, emergency response, even providing educational classes to schools.

So, what you have is a school resource officer, better known as an SRO, for short, he was working at Columbine. And as I said, he exchanged fire with the gunmen on the outside. Now, the failure at Columbine was the response after that. The SRO did his job, exchanged fire, delayed the entrance. The problem was the police response after that. Since then, tactics have changed. And now, instead of waiting for the SWAT team to gather and going into a school, now we know that police officers, even alone, are going to risk their lives and go into a school.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me get a response—

SEAN BURKE: So, the idea that—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me get a response from Damon Hewitt on the point that Sean Burke has made that anyone feels safer with a police officer nearby.

DAMON HEWITT: Well, we think that’s absolutely false. I mean, first of all, from a civil rights perspective, for many years, communities of color have actually felt under threat. They don’t have equal protection of the laws. They feel like they’re under assault. Students of color throughout—students of color throughout the country feel the same way in their schools. We know that what may appear to be a safe environment in some communities, in other communities it actually feels like danger.

And the racial disparities in the school-to-prison pipeline actually bear this out. We know that the U.S. Department of Education only recently began collecting data on school-based arrests. And although African-American students only comprise about 18 percent of public school students nationwide, they represent 35 and 42 percent of those students who are referred to law enforcement and arrested by law enforcement on school campuses. And so, unless you believe that African-American youth are somehow, in and of themselves, out on some rampage of crime, which is actually ridiculous, then you have to believe that there’s some type of cultural disconnect between what police are doing in schools, what SROs are doing in schools. And there’s a cultural disconnect, frankly, with your other guest’s statements, which just seem completely out of step with the reality that young people face and communities face throughout the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Sean Burke, your response, that not all people feel safe when a police officer is right there?

SEAN BURKE: Well, I think—I think you can take a reality and change it to fit your political agenda. And I believe that SROs do make schools safe. I believe that when you talk about prison-to pipeline, and you throw out all these stats to really scare, that maybe imply that police are racist, I think that’s a problem. And I think that doesn’t take into account, number one, victims’ rights. You talk about misdemeanors and people being arrested and summons for misdemeanors. Well, assault and battery isn’t a misdemeanor. So, what is a police officer to do if another student is assaulted or a teacher is assaulted? Is he to go to them and say, “I can’t help you because you’re in a school, and I can’t press charges, I can’t protect you”? I agree, there are instances—and we can name instances—where there are acts that may not have been correctly decided as far as actions against younger students and bringing them into the court system, but it’s hard to Monday-morning-quarterback an incident. And it’s also [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me get a quick comment from Damon Hewitt.

DAMON HEWITT: Well, you know, you don’t need to Monday-morning-quarterback when a student is given a criminal citation for cursing on a school campus. That’s absolutely ridiculous.

When we talk about agendas, let’s talk about the agenda of an industry. Look, I’ve worked very closely with law enforcement throughout my career. You know, I actually ran a task force for the former governor of New York regarding police-on-police shootings, where police shot other officers when they mistook them for criminal suspects. And they were black and Latino officers, primarily. So, the police community knows that there’s an issue here.

And it’s actually unfair not just to students, communities and teachers in schools; it’s also unfair to law enforcement, just to simply throw them into schools and say, “Police these school hallways.” You know, you can’t bring that kind of mindset into a school, because you completely alter and disrupt the entire school environment. And what happens is, you don’t make schools safer. All the research shows, from the American Psychological Association, from the American Bar Association, none of the leading experts actually believe that simply placing cops in schools makes them safer.

Now, we can talk about training and have an honest conversation about that. And the current leadership of NASRO, the organization that your guest once headed, does talk somewhat about training. But we also have to just say, first things first, don’t use this strategy—this tragedy, rather, as an excuse, as a reason to advance an agenda to simply propagate and populate schools with more and more police officers. Let’s actually address the root causes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to go back to the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre. He appeared on Meet the Press last month.

WAYNE LAPIERRE: If it’s crazy to call for putting police and armed security in our school to protect our children, then call me crazy. I’ll tell you what the American people—I think the American people think it’s crazy not to do it. It’s the one thing that would keep people safe. And the NRA is going to try to do that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Wayne LaPierre of the NRA. Sean Burke, your response to what he had to say?

SEAN BURKE: Well, as I said before, one of the few statements from the NRA that I do suggest—that I do agree with. The bad thing is, we don’t have the money in this country to do it. And the bad part is also that we have these people now that have opinions on what happens in school, strictly by looking at numbers, never look at instances individually, you know, and when you have these people that criticize law enforcement in schools, my question to them: Have you ever worked in a school?

I was an SRO, and SRO commander, and I was there for 15 years. And I have numerous and countless stories of how I’ve helped people. And I know SROs all around the country that work hard every day and that it takes a certain kind of individual. You know, you can’t just have this idea of this macho cop walking in the school halls and arresting people for swearing or for horsing around with their friends. That’s just not the reality. The reality is, incidents happen in schools, police are called for one reason or another by the school administrator, and sometimes action is taken. And that’s the way it is. Schools are safer with cops in there. With a well-trained police officer, they are going to be safer. And it does take a special kind of police officer to work in schools. And I personally have worked in schools, and I know the response from the administrators. I know the response from the kids. I’ve never had a problem getting relationships started with kids. And I think it carries over to the street. I think when you have a good relationship with an SRO, or a school resource officer, I think it carries over to police, in general, where children and students are not afraid to come up and talk to them. If we look at school shootings—

AMY GOODMAN: Sean Burke, a quick question, as we wrap up: Do you also support the assault weapons ban?

SEAN BURKE: I support meaningful gun changes. I think that there has to be some changes in our gun laws in this country, and I think it’s imperative.

AMY GOODMAN: Just very directly, an assault weapons ban and a high-capacity magazine ban that’s being proposed today, that the NRA opposes?

SEAN BURKE: I haven’t seen the full ban, but I really don’t think that anyone needs a 100-round drum. I don’t think anyone needs a machine gun to go hunting. So, if you’re talking about bans on that, I do agree on that.

AMY GOODMAN: And final comment, Damon Hewitt?

DAMON HEWITT: Sure. You know, we have to really think about the perspective that communities have throughout this country, especially communities of color. They are being policed, and they feel under assault. Children, when they leave their homes, as they walk to school or catch a bus to school, when they’re in school and on their way back, it’s like they’re under constant assault. We really have to keep and understand that perspective. The notion that we have an Officer Friendly in every school who smiles and shakes hands, that’s a great aspiration, but it’s actually pollyannaish, and it doesn’t comport with reality. Until we have a bright line between officers’ involvement in matters of school safety, in matters of school discipline, then it will be irresponsible to just ad hoc say, “Let’s bring officers into schools en masse.” Unless we deal with the unintended consequences, we’re actually doing more harm than good.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, and I thank you both for being with us, Damon Hewitt, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Sean Burke, School Safety Advocacy Council, speaking to us from Boston.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at the NRA’s links to weapons manufacturers. Stay with us.

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