Sunday, April 6, 2014

The school to prison pipeline just got a whole lot shorter

Listen… do you hear it? CLICK! Buzzzzz... Whirrr… Do you see it? Locks! Cameras! Action!

All across America public schools are looking more like prisons. With every school shooting more and more security measures are being put in place, and that effort ratcheted up exponentially after the massacre at Newtown. But who pays, and at what cost?

My school district is spending $300,000 on security upgrades, including hiring a security consultant to do a top-to-bottom review of our entire district. This isn’t unusual. The new normal in American schools is more cameras, more monitors, more locks, more check-in procedures, and more—and new—security drills.

$300,000 is a lot of money to a school district. Where does it come from? Well, when Gov. Christie slashed education spending and called back school surpluses in 2010, my district laid off about 8 teachers and outsourced all 62 of our special education aides. Many of the aides were certified teachers who had worked with our neediest students for years, and all were making a modest salary with benefits. Almost all left rather than work for half the pay and no benefits. Turnover is high now because $10 an hour is not a sustainable wage for someone looking to make a career in education.

My point is not to dredge up the past. At the time I was very critical of my school district, but that’s water under the bridge. My point is that we all pay with the continued loss of staff and services at our schools because these security upgrades are not required by the state. But no superintendent in their right mind wants another Newtown. And parents must have the peace of mind knowing their children are safe for 7 hours a day. But with Gov. Christie slashing school funding by billions, and a 2% property tax cap now the law in New Jersey, school districts are scrambling to find the money to pay for all this. In the meantime the day-to-day operations of our public schools have suffered: teachers, classes and after school activities have never been fully restored, and fees to parents for things like bussing, sports and clubs (aka shadow taxes) remain.

Every act of gun violence in America has an equal and opposite reaction in our schools: they are becoming more and more like prisons. All Baby Boomers and some Gen. X’ers remember a time when anyone could walk into a school without being buzzed in. There was never a fear of a gun-toting lunatic destroying lives. But those days are long gone. The new normal in many schools is unlock the door to enter a room; lock the door when you leave. Period. No exceptions except for places like the office or nurse. This goes for storage rooms, copier rooms, faculty lunchrooms and bathrooms. In many schools teachers can now be written up for leaving their classroom door unlocked. In addition to fire drills, school districts have new drills for active shooters inside or outside the building.

Yes, these are all necessary things in a nation that can’t and won’t pass meaningful gun legislation because, as the illogical NRA rhetoric—and campaign money—goes, criminals don’t obey laws so we can’t have more of them. And if there’s anyone out there who believes that, I want you to explain it to my first graders when we have a lockdown drill and I’m trying to keep them quiet while they pepper me with questions and scenarios:
“Ms. Corfield, what if there’s a real gun?”
“Ms. Corfield, they can just shoot through the glass.”
“Ms. Corfield, they can find us!”
“Ms. Corfield, what if the police don’t come?”

Children know. And they’re scared.

Now that the US Supreme Court has ruled on McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, the floodgates have been opened for more “first amendment” money—including powerful NRA money—to be poured into political campaigns, and it’s going to be harder to get any kind of meaningful gun legislation like universal background checks, closing the gun show loophole and updating the National Instant Check System passed. So instead of NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre calling for a ‘national database of lunatics’, why doesn’t the NRA give grants to school districts for these security upgrades? As he said, “If I’m a mom or a dad and I’m dropping my child off at school I’d feel a whole lot safer” if there were trained armed security guards or police protecting the school. I’m sure many parents would agree. But that costs money—money that school districts do not have.

Personally, I wouldn’t feel a lot safer. But that’s just me.

The school-to-prison pipeline just got a whole lot shorter because all across America our schools are turning into prisons. Is yours?