Despite a federal commission’s recommendation to arm teachers, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 reinforced its opposition to the presence of guns in schools as a means of protecting students.
The Federal Commission on School Safety, created by the Trump administration after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, suggested that districts arm educators to prevent gun violence. Eight days after the shooting, President Donald Trump suggested arming teachers, and the report 10 months later put his words into official recommendations.
“This would only obviously be for people who are very adept at handling a gun,” Trump said at a speech in February 2018. “It’s called concealed carry, where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them.”
The December report also suggested that the legal age for purchasing a firearm should remain the same, despite calls for increasing the age limit. However, in response to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, Florida increased the legal age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21 in March.
However, District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren said arming teachers will cause more problems. He outlined other precautions the district has taken to protect students in schools.
“We have not had any major threats to our schools, but we shouldn’t be so naive to think that we wouldn’t given the day and age,” Goren said. “We want to make sure that the people that are in our schools are the people that should be in our schools.”
Goren said all staff wear lanyards identifying themselves as district employees, and the district has first responders trained to react in case of an emergency. To get into District 65 buildings, visitors must be “buzzed in,” and all schools will have double-door entrances by the end of the summer, he said.
In addition to physical safety, the national report recommended addressing students’ mental health. Though the district is more receptive to these suggestions, Goren said these guidelines come without federal funding.
Goren emphasized that District 65 is already looking out for students’ emotional and social safety and that four years ago, the district established a team of social workers and psychologists available to students. Goren said District 65 has also partnered with Youth and Opportunity United, a local group that seeks to develop relationships with children, families and their communities.
Anya Tanyavutti, the board vice president for District 65, said most of the district’s 18 schools have social workers and psychologists and that they place an emphasis on restorative justice.
“(Restorative Justice is) if a child or an adult makes a choice that in some way creates harm to another child or to their community, their school community, the effort would be to repair that harm as opposed to punish for that infraction,” Tanyavutti said.
Tanyavutti said racism affects mental health in schools. All District 65 educators have completed Beyond Diversity, a two-day seminar that helps members of the school community understand the role race plays in the classroom.
The Federal Commission on School Safety report also mentions race in the classroom, though not to Tanyavutti’s liking. The report rescinds Obama-era guidelines meant to protect students of color from unfair discipline, though District 65 has reiterated its commitment to protect students of color from unfair suspensions.
Tanyavutti said the district’s discipline data still show a disproportionate amount of students of color receiving discipline referrals and suspension, and schools still have work to do to address these issues.
“Some threats to emotional safety include any experience of bigotry that children are having,” Tanyavutti said. “Elements of bigotry are the largest threats to social and emotional safety in our schools.”
Emma Stein, SESP first-year and Evanston Township High School/District 202 alum, said the greatest threat to schools are guns. Stein is the former president of the Student Senate at ETHS, and she helped plan a walkout to protest gun violence last year in response to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas.
Stein said Trump’s election and school shootings propelled her into a life of political engagement. Schools need to foster engagement, she added, and empowerment among students before they become apathetic about life. This, Stein thinks, is the key to creating a safe and healthy community.
“Student mental health is so important,” Stein said, “especially when we see increased rates of anxiety and depression across the board in students. But when we’re discussing gun violence, blaming the mental health of the student, of the school shooters and the school district, is a band-aid for a much larger issue.”
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