On Thursday, the Arkansas Legislature passed SB2, and Gov. Hutchinson signed it into law. The new act will allow the Arkansas Department of Education to receive $50 million in general revenue funds to go toward school safety grants. And while everyone wants our children to be in safe and healthy learning environments, some school safety practices that we could now see implemented can cause more harm than good.
The “hardening” of our schools unfortunately will not address the root cause of school violence and will instead result in the further criminalization and policing of students in schools. This disproportionately harms Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) students, and can have long-term consequences as they enter young adulthood. We also know that school discipline measures are already impacting BIPOC students disproportionately in Arkansas, with Black students being 2.6 times more likely to be written up for disorderly conduct than their White peers; and once written up, they are 24% more likely to face exclusionary consequences, like out of school suspension, expulsion, and being moved to alternative learning environments. Continuing with these practices along with the addition of harsh school safety measures will result in the criminalization and policing of students in schools, which will obstruct a thriving and nurturing school environment and further perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline.
Students do need to be held responsible and accountable for their actions, which is why Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families supports policies rooted in student-centered, restorative justice approaches. Educators also need continued support for professional development programs that equip them to address student trauma and better respond to the impact of trauma on students’ neurological development, behavior, and learning.
There is also an emotional cost to all students when we treat our schools like prisons, and we have the data from the 2020 KIDS COUNT Data Book to show that children in our state are already struggling with mental health, with Arkansas reporting the third-highest increase in anxiety and depression diagnoses for children across the nation.
A truly transformative investment is needed in the physical and mental health of all students, and to truly transform our schools into safe, just, and equitable learning communities, we all must take responsibility for ending subjective and biased enforcement of disciplinary policies as well as overreliance on the referrals of students to law enforcement.