Getting Beyond Guns

For many Kentucky high school students growing up with the memories of Heath, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, recent events have made it feel as though our schools are under siege. 

And this was true even before the recent school shootings took the lives of two students at Marshall County High School in Benton, Kentucky and 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Several months prior to these tragedies, the Student Voice Team conducted a school climate survey of 1552 students at three geographically-diverse Kentucky high schools. Of the students responding, 47% reported that they worry about violence at their school and 19% said that they do so frequently.

Since the Benton and Parkland shootings, many of us have been on edge with real gun confiscations, social media scares, and precautionary lockdowns. Sixteen-year old Bree Owen from Daviess County High School expressed a common sentiment: “I feel scared, but also frustrated,” she said. “Usually when we get threats, it’s written on walls or sent over texts then extended into rumors that make their way throughout everyone. It gets to the point where I don’t know what I should be scared about and what I shouldn’t.”

National conversations about school safety since Parkland have focused on what to do about weapons: how to “harden the target,” how to arm teachers, and how to reduce access to guns. As a response to mass school shootings, this may make sense. But while mass school shootings seem to be on the rise, they are rare: since 1996, there have been 16 multiple victim shootings in schools. And over the past 25 years, an average of 10 students per year out of over 50 million public school students in the United States have lost their lives to a school shooter. Contrast the scope with the Centers for Disease Control survey showing that over 20% of high school students report having been bullied on school property and nearly 8% report having been in a physical fight there.

These facts do not diminish the horrific experience students, families, and communities affected by school shootings endure. But they also suggest the conversation we are having about how to make students feel safer must get beyond guns. 

We need to talk about school climate and the relationships students have to each other and to adults in school as well as the norms, goals, values and nature of education that make school a place where students from a wide range of backgrounds can love learning and feel safe, welcome, and loved themselves.

More specifically, while we do need to address inappropriate access to guns like the one used in Parkland and on our streets, in order to ensure schools that are conducive to learning at high levels, we must do much more. As Ron Avi Astor, a specialist in school violence  from the University of Southern California explains, when it comes to school safety, we must also look at preventative care. 

Astor’s research shows that the students who bring guns to schools are the students who most frequently report being ostracized or bullied themselves. It also suggests that if we can address student marginalization sooner, we have a much better shot at stemming school violence later.

A preventative approach means we must consider such things as whether our discipline policies are constructive and rehabilitative and fairly administered. We must evaluate students’ mental health so they can get the help they need and ensure that school counselors are better resourced and less overwhelmed by their caseloads. And we must build capacity in young people and adults to support each other socially and emotionally.

Rather than talking about hardening our schools, we should be talking about creating more compassionate ones.

Fortunately, as student activists around the country are demonstrating in this moment, young people are ready to help lead the charge. Policymakers would be wise to heed our interest and energy and enlist us as full partners in finding solutions.

Along those lines, the Student Voice Team is planning a statewide March For Our Lives KY Teach-In & Rally on March 20th on the capitol steps in Frankfort. The event corresponds with the marches being organized by Stoneman Douglas students and students across the state and country. Our Teach-In will support students wanting to advocate for better school climate and safety, and the Rally will feature students from across the Commonwealth sharing their stories. Both offer the opportunity for students and adults to #StandWithStudents.

We invite all Kentuckians who believe that young people can and should be a part of the solution to join us in solidarity. Meet us in Frankfort Tuesday if you, too, want to stand with students and help us make Kentucky schools the safest, most inclusive, most engaging schools they can possibly be.

The Kentucky Student Voice Team is a statewide organization of young people who are co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools & communities as research, policy & advocacy partners. From 2012 to 2021, KSVT was incubated at the Prichard Committee, a nonpartisan, citizen-led organization working to improve education in Kentucky for all ages.

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