Even as mid-1990s action movies go, the plot of “The Substitute” is singularly ridiculous: An American mercenary (Tom Berenger) goes undercover to take on a drug gang operating out of an inner-city high school — and finds that he needs his military training just to get his violent students under control. But, even for a film that panders unsubtly to white American fantasies of black and Latino teen superpredators, the prospect of the hero actually killing his own students is toxic. (In the end, the drug running turns out to be orchestrated by the school’s respectable black principal, and the wayward students benefit from their substitute’s rough-and-tumble discipline.)
Two decades later, in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students and staff members dead, the prospect of teachers shooting their students is no longer unthinkable. Indeed, it is a seriously debated policy proposal. In a series of White House meetings last week, President Donald Trump proposed arming some 1 million American educators in an effort to deter potential gunmen. Yet easy talk of going on the “offensive” against school shooters ignores a blunt truth: Flooding America’s classrooms with guns would almost certainly result in greater numbers of dead students. And the students most likely to get killed will be those who are disproportionately vulnerable to the state-sanctioned violence that already pervades America’s schools: children of color and those with disabilities.
Regular violence is a reality in many American schools — and minorities bear the brunt of it. The corporal punishment of students is legally permitted in some 19 states. In 2017, researchers estimated that, in a given school year, 589 children are corporally punished (most often struck with paddles) every day. Unsurprisingly, this violent discipline is disproportionately inflicted on students of color. Black students are twice as likely as whites to be struck in Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In Maine, black children are eight times more likely to be hit than white children are. Children with disabilities also suffer a disproportionate share of this disciplinary violence. In a representative year, school authorities pinned down, tied up, or otherwise restrained 267,000 American schoolchildren, three-quarters of whom had some kind of disability; such practices have resulted in multiple fatalities. And when children are disabled, as well as black or brown, school authorities’ embrace of what the journalist David Perry has called a “culture of compliance” has translated into acts of remarkable brutality: children being beaten, handcuffed, and pepper-sprayed.
Much of this violence is nominally legal, even socially encouraged — although clearly cruel and expressing the same patterns of discrimination that inflect suspension rates and other kinds of punishment. But violence is a paradoxical thing: It’s a way of exerting control that also always threatens to slip out of control. America’s crowded and beleaguered school systems see a lot of this kind of violence, too: Incidents in which teachers and school administrators whip students with belts, flip their desks, body-slam them, or drag them by their hair occur with distressing frequency. And like every other kind of worker in America, teachers sometimes hurt themselves and each other: Educators have killed themselves at their jobs and murdered their colleagues.
It is into this state of affairs that the Trump administration now wishes to insert guns. Public health experts have time and again argued that the presence of guns in environments where the risk of violence already exists — from situations of domestic violence to self-harm — vastly increases the likelihood of lethal outcomes. There is no reason not to expect a similar impact from a proliferation of guns in America’s already violent schools. The issue is not about not trusting individual teachers, or not appreciating the sacrifices many already make and the patience they show in a profession marked by stagnant salaries and soaring job dissatisfaction. It’s about simply recognizing that teachers are human, and no more immune to the influence of bias, structural racism, or lapses in judgment than anyone else.
Indeed, America already has abundant and grim evidence about the outcomes of interactions between youth and armed authority figures. The lethality of our police has no real analog in the developed world: One-third of all Americans killed by strangers are killed by police. Here, too, the landscape of violence betrays stark disparities, particularly when it comes to children: Black teens are 21 times more likely to be shot dead than their white peers, and people with disabilities and mental illnesses are acutely vulnerable as well. And here, too, the body count indexes broader social injustice and biases: Studies have shown Americans in general have a strong tendency to view inoffensive behavior by young black children as threatening and criminal, and mistake objects like toys, candy bars, and phones for guns when they are held in black hands. Whatever threats, real or imagined, animate why and how America allows its police to discharge lethal force, a running theme in the outcomes is abundantly clear: The most vulnerable Americans regularly die. Why would we expect different outcomes from arming teachers?
Inserting guns into classrooms with the stipulation that they be used for only one purpose and against only one (very rare) target — active school shooters — is delusional. Giving educators the tools and prerogative to exercise lethal force against a specific threat will make far more tragic outcomes not only possible, but inevitable. The chorus that all of America’s students have a right to “feel safe” in their schools ignores the actual state of affairs in U.S. classrooms. Arming teachers would make the gap between the fantasy of safety for everyone and the reality of classroom violence even starker.