Taylor Knuth: A better way to prevent violence in schools

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Participants march from West High School to the state Capitol during the March for Our Lives SLC Saturday, March 24, 2018. The student-led March for Our Lives SLC got underway about 11:30 a.m. with what police estimated were 8,000 participants walking from Salt Lake CityÕs West High School to the front steps of the state Capitol.

It is without argument that students should be safe and secure in schools without the threat of gun violence looming over their shoulders. Since the 1999 Columbine massacre, government officials have focused a great deal of financial resources to address the issue of school safety and security through federal grant programs, specifically targeting policies to reduce gun violence in schools.

Among the most prominent, and potentially problematic funding programs of this nature, is the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which has distributed over $14 billion in grant funding since 1994 and $50 million in school safety funding this year alone.

There is little research to support the efficacy of these federal grant programs in addressing gun violence, decreasing crime, or preventing the victimization of students in school. Further, the research that is available on these grant programs suggests that the negative impact on minoritized students in our schools leads to life-altering, and sometimes life-ending, results.

Put in simpler terms, the policy response by the government and the grant funding that has followed have only further harmed our students of color, LGBTQ+ students and our students with disabilities and placed them into a pipeline leading to their exclusion from school and eventually incarceration. This process is commonly referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline and is a major problem in Utah schools.

So why did three Utah school districts (Ogden, Provo and Nebo) accept $1,393,332 in funding from COPS this year without any public announcement or engagement with the community on the importance of preventing gun violence and increasing school safety and security in our schools?

I believe that our Utah schools are committed to providing safe learning environments and to supporting students in many ways, both in and out of the classroom, regardless of their race, ethnicity or academic ability. I have seen this firsthand in my years working with community nonprofits and the Ogden School District. Even so, I also believe that our spending in schools should align with our values as a community and that these efforts should be student-centered and based in evidence.

Additionally, our Utah schools regularly affirm their commitment to diversity, equity and access for all. How then, can these school districts balance the acceptance of this grant money with these values? Further, how can we avoid spending this money in a way that contributes to the problematic interventions in our schools, which deposit our students into the school-to-prison pipeline?

The problem? When these grants are implemented in our schools, they build an infrastructure and create a culture of surveillance, exclusionary discipline and impose policies and practices that start our schools down a pathway which ends in them appearing and operating as if they were prisons for our youths. These grants are especially harmful to our students of color, our LGBTQ+ students and our students with disabilities, who we find are much more likely to be suspended, expelled or arrested.

In one study conducted on Utah’s school-to-prison pipeline, researchers found that in regards to disciplinary actions “the number of actions going to students of color is disproportionate compared to disciplinary action by demographic.”

The burden of keeping our students safe and aligning our actions with our values falls to all of us. Therefore, the solution to this complex problem exists outside of our classrooms and inside of our living rooms. We must all come together to understand and promote restorative justice practices to stop torrential flow of minoritized students into the pipeline that feeds our nation’s obsession with the mass incarceration of Black and brown bodies. These restorative practices include addressing the most critical needs of the school’s community, building healthy relationships and reducing and preventing harmful behaviors. We must also make sure that every dollar spent on school safety and security is based on equitable and just practices.

These are the practices proven to prevent gun violence and stop the disciplinary interventions and over surveillance that exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline. We should focus on ending the school-to-prison pipeline, which we know without question, makes children less safe. Period.

Taylor Knuth

Taylor Knuth, Ogden, is a doctoral student at the University of Utah and a community organizer and advocate.