A traditional approach to school security is failing. Security is a basic human need that we all relate to viscerally. I personally recall the day, twenty years ago now, when as a long-term substitute teacher in Fairfax, VA, the massacre at Columbine occurred. When I walked into my classroom that day, it felt like walking into a coffin. My class was half its usual size; many students and parents were afraid to even come. For the students who were there, the shooting was all they could talk about. This cloud has hung over my teaching career, in middle and high school, and now at university.
Today, hundreds of buried young bodies later, I wish that we as a country had ended our deadly denial then. We did not, so schools face intense security challenges and many resemble prison architecture, with metal detectors and only one viable entrance. For decades the lack of safety has interfered especially with the ability of minority students to regularly attend school. Common sense regulation of guns, especially weapons of war that do not have a place in civilian life, is of course paramount. But I’d like here to explore a broader question: what would a human security approach to schools look like? Now is the time to ask this question, as schools throughout Florida and the nation grapple with new policy mandates and organized demands for safer schools. Indeed, a generation raised on active shooter drills is on the march to save their own lives, and one another’s.
As we wrestle with this question, some counties are headed in the wrong direction, such as through arming teachers, which represents a classic traditional approach to thinking about security that has been failing us since I began my teaching career. Instead, we need a new approach often called by peace educators “human security”—defined as an approach that believes the best way to have security is to build community.
Human security expands our traditional ideas about security beyond policing, surveillance and making buildings harder targets. Human security is more comprehensive, attuned to the needs of the human beings that make up an institution, rather than just the institution or building itself. As a concept originally from international relations, it argued that we needed to pay as much attention to the security of civilians in a war zone as we were paying to the security of the capital or the government. Human security would obviously be concerned with larger-scale, shocking school massacres. Yet it would refuse to overlook the smaller scale, more marginalized kinds of everyday violence experienced by young people in lower-income districts.
As a more comprehensive approach focused on meeting human needs, the framework of human security understands that insecurity can come from horrific shootings—and insecurity can also come from those who are supposed to protect us! As the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues, black and other minority students have shared social media video of school resource officers (SRO) assaulting them. In the midst of America’s struggle for public gun safety, schools are facing new pressure and sometimes state mandates to hire more SROs (as is the case where I live FL). A human security approach to this conversation will bring as much focus to bear on accountability for security officers as on working to prevent the next attack before it occurs. Human security values prevention, not reaction. Human security is egalitarian, not authoritarian.
Restorative Justice (RJ), an approach gaining more and more momentum in school districts across the US, would be an essential part of a human security approach for schools. RJ honors the victim of a crime by putting her needs first (not the needs of the school administration or the government). Making the victim whole (if possible) and trying to bring the perpetrator back into the community as a valued and productive member is the intention. RJ uses tools such as mediation and dialogue to achieve its challenging goals.
More holistic in its approach than traditional thinking about security, a human security approach to schools would also recognize the numerous security concerns of faculty, staff and students outside of the school building. For years educators have discussed “wrap around services” for students facing health concerns, abuse, homelessness, hunger or other threats. I would describe progress as real but spotty. The resources have been dwindling, rather than growing, to address needs as conservative state and local governments continue to cut essential services.
This reminds us that any conversation about security is inescapably political, as it involves making choices about where public resources go, and who is defined as a victim versus who is considered a threat. Are minority students more safe, or less safe, with more armed security in a school? Will young women be safe in the custody of older men? How does a securitized environment impact a student’s ability to learn? How does it shape their views of what it means to be a citizen? We already know that fear impedes brain development and information processing. So does hunger, chronic illness or homelessness. From a human security perspective, these are all security matters. This means that if we truly want to secure students and teachers, and not just school buildings, we need to be addressing “school” security from the community inward, not from the school building out.