BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - The tragedy of Sandy Hook shook our nation to its core. In its wake, we are being urged to accept extreme options to protect the safety of our children. Both the National Rifle Association and former Education Secretary Bill Bennett have called for armed guards in schools. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has introduced legislation that would authorize deployment of the National Guard to protect schools.
This is not the first time that fears of school violence have led to extreme proposals. In the 1980s and early '90s, driven by a fear of youth violence, our nation's schools came to believe there was little choice but to turn to zero tolerance policies that dramatically increased the use of suspension and expulsion for increasingly minor offenses. Twelve years ago, a string of school shootings across the nation led to renewed calls for the expansion of such measures.
As the immediacy of our fears subsided, however, more careful evaluation called into question the basic assumptions of zero tolerance.
A yearlong study commissioned by the American Psychological Association found no evidence that zero tolerance contributes to school safety or improved behavior, and concluded that it worsens racial disparities in school discipline, causes hardship for families and flies in the face of what we know about adolescent development.
Today, the depth of the Sandy Hook tragedy makes it seem almost inevitable that there will be a dramatically increased police presence, perhaps even armed, in our nation's schools. Yet a student of history cannot help but wonder if we are once again being drawn down an ineffective and counterproductive path.
The truth of the matter is that research on the effects of police in schools is extremely thin: We know virtually nothing about whether police in schools - armed or unarmed - can make schools safer.
Indeed, some studies show that increased police presence is likely associated with less safe schools, decreases in student attendance and student achievement, and increased arrests for minor misbehavior, and that these effects fall hardest on students of color in low income schools.
If we wish to consider evidence, it is hard to know what to make of calls for armed guards in schools: The proposal is so extreme that no one has ever thought to study it. But the basic premise of the Gun Free Schools Act remains as essential to our children's safety as when it was passed in 1994: Guns do not belong in schools.
What does work? In the wake of Sandy Hook, the Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence, comprising some of the nation's leading violence prevention experts, outlined a comprehensive and coordinated approach.
They called for programs that include balance, addressing both physical safety and social and emotional supports for students, communication among local agencies to assess the seriousness of threats of violence, connectedness to reintegrate alienated students before they choose violence, and support for all students through evidence-based programs that improve the school climate.
Above all, when almost 20 percent of our students in school may experience an emotional or behavioral problem, a dramatic increase in the availability and resources for school mental health services is critical.
Twelve years after Columbine, in the face of an incomprehensible tragedy, we stand once again at a crossroads of violence prevention.
As always, we must do everything in our power to protect our children and school staff from both all threats to their safety. But twenty years of experience in school violence prevention has taught us that when we are stampeded by fear into replacing data-driven practices with politically expedient rhetoric, we make our children less safe.
With limited resources, an investment in integrating proven effective programs into a comprehensive plan is our best bet for preserving the safety of our schools.