In the days following the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we were heartened to open The New York Times and see a full-page, open letter signed by the heads of hundreds of independent schools throughout New York State, including many of the wonderful special education schools our clients’ children attend. Titled “Heads of Schools Speak Out Against Gun Violence,” the joint letter called upon our President and Congress to enact common sense gun law reform.
Unfortunately, rather than doing the hard work of reforming gun laws, Congress is looking at legislation like HR 4909, the Students, Teachers, and Officers Prevention (STOP) School Violence Act, which would set aside funds for grants to public school districts and private schools for the installation of new school security infrastructure, coordination with law enforcement, and the development of anonymous reporting systems, among other measures.
Evidence-based research has consistently demonstrated that increasing policing in schools does not make the school environment safer. Further, HR 4909 does not meet obligations under civil rights statutes, including the IDEA, to guarantee that students receive fair treatment, equal protection, and due process rights. The fact of the matter is that people with disabilities, including the mentally ill and those with emotional disturbances, are much more likely to become victims of violence than to be its perpetrators. Measures that criminalize our students, particularly those for whom behavior is a concern, inappropriately exacerbate the biases already operating against them.
The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, of which we are a member, has issued two statements on this topic since the Parkland tragedy: one calling upon Congress to fund the creation of strong therapeutic programs for children who need intensive services and to finance training in positive, trauma-informed techniques to resolve behavioral challenges, and a second statement in opposition to HR 4909. We stand in agreement with both of these statements.
These are not partisan issues. We must put aside tribalism and find common ground to protect our children and teachers from gun violence without needlessly contributing to bias and discrimination against our most vulnerable students and without turning our schools into prisons.