Commentary: Their Voices Call Out to Us

It’s time for greater investments in mental health services and commonsense gun control.

One year after the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, our nation continues to grieve the events of Dec. 14, 2012. On the painful anniversary, our collective prayers were with the victim’ families and the entire Newtown community.

While we wish we could turn back the clocks to erase the devastation of Dec. 14 — and quite frankly the gun violence that continues to plague communities across this country — we owe it to those innocent children and brave adults who lost their lives on that fateful day to continue to raise our voices in support of long term solutions that really matter; solutions that prevent gun violence and give children every opportunity to succeed.

Yet, in the aftermath of Newtown, the immediate reaction was to call for police and armed personnel in schools. While keeping our children safe is the highest priority, our nation must balance the need for safety and security with ensuring a nurturing learning environment. 

Even as there were calls for more police in schools, the data suggested we could not make our schools safer with more guns. Instead of preventing or stopping crime, the impact of police in schools has been a dramatic increase in students arrested for minor misbehaviors. With police in schools, we see children arrested, handcuffed and treated as criminals for offenses such as violating a dress code, talking back to a teacher or bringing a cell phone to school. This harsh approach to school discipline will not keep our children and communities safe.

To stymie gun violence and create safe learning environments, we should invest in counselors and psychologists; increase the presence of parents and volunteers in schools; foster stronger adult-student relationships; implement programs that reduce violence like conflict resolution initiatives, limit the use of zero-tolerance and exclusionary student discipline practices. We should also invest in non-invasive school safety measures like securing and monitoring entrances to schools. Rather than using scarce funds for armed guards, we should direct resources to evidence-based practices that actually work.

In the absence of investments in counselors, psychologists and mental health services, we cannot identify students who need extra supports or get to the root causes of violence. And as Antoinette Tuff, the Georgia woman who selflessly intervened and convinced an AK-47 toting gunman to surrender to authorities, has shown, often, the difference between a catastrophic incident at schools is the relationship students have with caring adults in the building. Yet as remarkable and significant as these ideals are, Congressional leaders must also muster the political will to tackle gun control, where there is broad public support for common sense reforms such as background checks on gun sales. The victims of gun violence and their families deserve no less.

Safety plans that rely on police in schools neglect the damaging impact such plans have on youth, particularly youth of color. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, of students arrested or referred to law enforcement, more than 70 percent are African-American or LatinoThe result is more African-American and Latino students pushed out of school and funneled into the juvenile justice system, instead of being channeled into colleges and careers. This ultimately hurts us all.

So even as the nation remembers the victims of gun violence in Newtown, and other cities such as Chicago, where more than 435 people were murdered in 2012 as a result of gun violence, we must move from reflection to action on solutions that truly work. On the one-year anniversary, the voices of the victims of gun violence call out to us. Will we listen?

Judith Browne Dianis is the co-director of the Advancement Project.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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 (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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