Race, Guns, Police and Columbine: Talking Points 19 Years Later
What Happened: The Columbine School Shooting of 1999
- On April 20, 1999, two seniors at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado killed 13 people and injured 24 others during a shooting spree on their high school campus.
- At the time, the Columbine shooting was the worst high school shooting in U.S. history.
- The gunmen, Eric Harris (18) and Dylan Klebold (17), both white males, began shooting outside of the school on the morning of April 20th. They continued inside the school and ultimately turned the guns on themselves.
- The Columbine shooting was highly publicized, with much speculation and debate over what motivated the two shooters. Possibly the most impactful conversation prompted by the school shooting was the national debate on gun control and school safety.
The Myth of Gun Control and School Safety after Columbine
- In response to the Columbine shooting, policy makers enacted laws that increased the criminalization of students and called for greater police presence within schools.
- More than $750 million in federal funds was spent to hire over 6,500 school police officers nationwide.
- In addition to assigning police to schools, money was used to add more security guards, metal detectors and surveillance cameras to schools, particularly middle and high schools.
- While concerns for the physical safety and well-being of students are valid, the result of increasing police and surveillance of students has been an increase in students being arrested for low-level offenses. Data shows that overwhelmingly, students are arrested at school for things like playground fights, verbal threats, destruction of property, and minor drug offenses, as opposed to bringing weapons to school.
- While supporters of school police claimed to be in support of gun control in schools, the increase in school police and security guards actually meant more guns being placed in and around schools.
- Despite the fact that the Columbine shooting took place in a suburban, majority white school, the impact of these proposed “solutions” to school safety are felt the hardest in schools and communities of color that have been historically over criminalized.
Why School Policing Solutions Won’t Work for Today’s Students
- The current approach to making schools a safe environment by increasing police presence and surveillance of students simply doesn’t work. There is no evidence that the presence of armed police in schools prevents violence. Around the country, we see a deep reliance on school-based law enforcement and other forms of harsh and reactionary punishment to respond to typical childhood behavior. Yet, school police departments consistently fail to publicize any data related to the effectiveness of reducing violence in schools. In fact, many of them fail to track their interactions with students at all.
- Police presence in schools drastically impacts school climate and does not contribute to positive, nurturing learning environments for students. Increased security and police presence makes schools look and feel dramatically less welcoming and more threatening to students. This signifies a declined sense of safety for students who justifiably feel like police make problems worse. When any student feels threatened and unsafe at school, it has an impact on students school-wide.
- Students of color are disproportionately arrested and referred to law enforcement and this increases when police are present. Despite the fact that there is no evidence that students of color misbehave at higher rates, Black students were more than twice as likely as their white peers to be referred to law enforcement or arrested at school.
- Students, particularly students of color, are systematically left out of the creation of visions for school safety. Just as the long legacy of student organizing and protest has always represented the desire for students to self-determine, today’s students are rising up to demand a role in defining what school safety means for them. Young people are not integrated in crafting the vision for the development and maintenance of safe schools. Moves to increase school police are reactive, ill-informed and out of touch with what actually makes students feel safe.
Columbine, Newtown, and Parkland: Where Do We Go From Here?
- While the Columbine High School shooting represents a pivotal shift toward investment in school police, subsequent school shootings- like the Sandyhook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut and the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida- have further entrenched a culture of school policing. It’s critical that communities and policymakers alike understand that mass shootings has always led to calls for more police and the result is a culture of criminalization of young people of color.
- Instead of more police, schools need strategies on how to create positive, supportive learning environments that phase out law enforcement, not increase their presence. An improvement in mental health resources in U.S. cities cannot happen without an intentional and accountable effort to divest funding and shift budgeting from School Police officers to other necessary programs that actually promote a nurturing school environment. Comprehensive mental health and emotional support services helps students be proactively and consistently supported when dealing with emotional, mental, and social concerns.
- Restorative justice is key in building relationships between students, parents, teachers, school staff and community and is an alternative to the presence of police and armed teachers. Our schools require an intentional, and systematic effort for restorative justice programs for peer-to-peer and peer-to-teacher/administrator mediation.
- The experiences of students of color must be centered when considering solutions to mass violence, as black and brown communities have consistently faced various forms of state-sanctioned violence and oppression.Over-policing in our schools only serves to further criminalize young people of color at the expense of learning. Immigration raids across the city have occurred in and around our schools and in homes which instills a constant feeling of fear that impacts young people’s ability to participate in their education. That is why we know ICE and police are two sides of the same coin for our families. Both are detrimental to our dignity and our survival, and we need to end their reach into our lives now.
- Communities of color have been systematically flooded with guns for generations. Gun control is critical for keeping all communities safe. However, gun laws that claim to restrict access while further entrenching a racialized weapons culture in our communities will not suffice as a solution.