Schools, guns and justice

By Lindsey Tercilla (4JM) and Felicia Holloman (3JM)

Mikayla Suggs, a 16-year-old from Gainesville High School, thought about the question for a moment. “I feel safe,” she finally concluded when asked about security at her high school, noting her campus has a couple of security guards on staff.

It’s a feeling that, perhaps until recently, was taken for granted. But in the wake of the shootings of 20 children and six adults at Newtown, Conn.’s, Sandy Hook Elementary School, gun laws, school security and the juvenile justice system have come under greater scrutiny in Florida and all over the nation. UF Law joined that debate in earnest during the spring semester through criminal justice conferences, a preemption-and-guns-related symposium, scholarly research and a talk by a former president of the National Rifle Association.

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At the Law and Justice Youth Conference, presented by the Josiah T. Walls Bar Association, Mikayla was among the Gainesville middle and high school students talking about preventing tragedies like Sandy Hook. Solutions ranged from tightening gun control laws to giving teachers handguns. Lydia Lee, an 11-year old from Lincoln Middle School, said she does not always feel safe at school, despite the presence of security guards. “The gun laws are good, but we need more background checks,” Lydia said.

Adrian Dixon, 13 years old, from Kanapaha Middle School, said guns should be more available in schools. “I do not think schools are safe. I think teachers should have guns,” Adrian said.

Sandra Froman, a former NRA president, told a UF Law audience in February that new gun laws would not make schools safer. She favored “throwing away the key” for those who commit gun crimes. She advocated bringing guns into places where they are now banned.

“Violent criminals go to where they know there are going to be unarmed victims, like a classroom,” Froman said. “And then the rest of us are left without the ability to protect our families.”

Some in the Florida Legislature agree. One proposal floated during the spring legislative session would have allowed school principals and district superintendents to designate staff members to carry concealed weapons on school grounds.

Mindy Gould, Florida Parent Teacher Association Legislation Chairwoman based in Miami-Dade County, panned this idea. “The PTA is against this. We do not want guns in schools, period,” she said.

Gould believes it isn’t the number of guns or police in schools that will make the difference. “The truth is that we’ve got to address the issues as to why this is going on in the minds of our children,” she said. “We are creating a false sense of security if we don’t provide mental counseling to students.”

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State Rep. Charles McBurney (JD 82) speaks during a debate on the floor of the Florida House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, UF Law alumni are engaged in the debate as state lawmakers. With a wife teaching elementary school music and his grandchildren in school, state Rep. Charles Mc- Burney (JD 82) figures he has a vested interest.

“School safety is extremely important, but I don’t think it’s all about gun control,” said the Jacksonville Republican, who serves on the Judiciary Committee. “It’s more complicated than that. We as a legislature, a state, and a society need to focus more on the treatment of mental illnesses than we have in the past.”

And he doesn’t see legislation as the solution. “There is not a single bill that you could pass that would solve all of it.”

One UF Law professor has studied how school administrators respond to violence and other infractions among school populations. The result can be a “prison-like environment,” especially likely in schools with high numbers of minority and low-income students.

UF Law Professor Jason Nance employed a restricted use database from the Department of Education on school-related crime to assess practices by school principals. Nance considered how student race and poverty influenced the decision making of school administrators.

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Jason Nance

“I looked at search practices within schools,” Nance said. “This included random sweeps, metal detectors, locked gates, guards and surveillance cameras.”

He factored in the variables of school crime, school disorder, neighborhood crime, geographic region, the urban nature of a school, student population and low-performing students.

“Even when controlling for school disorder and violence, the student race population and student poverty tend to be significant predictors of whether or not a school chooses to rely on these prison-like tactics,” he said.

Government funding for school security is among the common policy proposals for improving safety. However, Nance believes it may have an adverse effect. “My fear is that if the governments provide more funding for security these disparities will get worse.”

Another tactic is putting guards in schools. Parents often feel that their children are safer with a guard on campus, but that may not necessarily be true. “As schools employ more police officers, they tend to exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline,” Nance said.

Nance’s fears are supported by experts who maintain that pipeline.

Although communities seek protection from sometimes real threats to their children’s safety, there are untold consequences with increasing school security measures through police presence. With more officers at schools, students are more likely to be arrested — often for minor offenses. James Bell, founder and executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice Fairness & Equality, said the justice system can’t cope.

“Courts aren’t reacting to this at all,” Bell said during a presentation at UF Law titled “Reforming the Juvenile Justice System: A Workshop for Change.”

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He emphasized the research that suggests the juvenile justice system does not prevent juvenile crime; it makes it worse. Because the majority of juvenile crimes are minor, nonviolent, property-based offenses, Bell believes disciplining juveniles with incarceration is counterproductive. “We’re not taking into consideration normal adolescent development,” Bell said.

Nance added that taking the right to discipline out of the hands of educators has a disproportionate effect on minorities, especially black males. Future employment and educational opportunities can be harmed, placing low-income students at a greater disadvantage to their peers. Nance suggested school administrators implement programs to foster trust between administrators and students as well as counseling and mental health programs.

Perhaps the most difficult realization in the debate about the intersection of guns and schools is that even intensified security measures and customized programs will not guarantee the safety of schoolchildren. Nance suggested that policymakers who seek to respond to Sandy Hook should keep such violence in perspective. “When it happens it’s tragic, but these tragedies are really rare,” Nance said.