Are all school gun violence incidents equal?

Reaction to guns in suburban schools spurs frustration in minority communities

High School students from Brooklyn demand that our elected representatives protect students from gun violence and enact sane gun laws. #BrooklynWalksOut (photo by Jeffrey Bary, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
High School students from Brooklyn demand that our elected representatives protect students from gun violence and enact sane gun laws. #BrooklynWalksOut (photo by Jeffrey Bary, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

Gun violence and school safety became the topic of the week in Wisconsin, after a confrontation between police officers and a Waukesha South high school student last Monday ended with the student hospitalized for a gunshot wound. In the wake of that incident, eight other schools reported possible threats from students. The ripple effect shocked state residents. It has since been determined that the first student, armed with a pellet gun not an actual handgun, was having issues with his classmates.

The flurry of media coverage and calls for reform left some community members wondering if the level of response depends where these incidents occur. Becky Cooper Clancy, owner of Bounce Milwaukee and mother of a student who experienced the Waukesha South lock down, believes it does.

“Who would think it would happen in Waukesha?” Clancy says she heard during a conversation on the incidents, another of which occurred the same day at the school’s counterpart, Waukesha North.

Those kinds of assumptions are not lost on Clancy. Some of her children also went to Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Despite a common assumption that MPS schools are more dangerous, Clancy notes that school shooting alerts weren’t as prevalent as some people think.

“My oldest graduated from [Rufus King International School]. Never felt unsafe when he was there,” she says. She adds that discriminatory assumptions about “expected places for violence” portray “such a weird mirror of reality.” Suburban schools are more often affected by gun warnings and lock downs.

Jamaal Smith, violence prevention manager at Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention, echoed the sentiment.

Similar to the opioid epidemic

“This is kind of similar to the substance-abuse epidemic, or the opioid epidemic,” Smith told Wisconsin Examiner. “When opioids were very problematic in non-white communities, then it was criminalized. But now that it’s reaching more of the suburban areas, now we’re starting to have more of a conversation about treatment. So, same thing here with the gun violence that’s happening in predominantly white schools.”

Smith feels that a big part of this is people’s assumptions about where violence is supposed to happen. “The gun violence issue that happens in communities of color, that’s almost like an expectation, versus when it happens in predominantly white schools. This is an epidemic that we really need to address. And I think that a lot of that is centered around racial biases.”

Smith points out that beliefs that African Americans and other people of color are inherently violent are pervasive. So when those groups experience gun violence incidents, whether in school or elsewhere, there is little uproar. In comparison, there is a perception that violence in suburban school districts  “is not something that is supposed to happen,” says Smith. He adds that in truth, “it shouldn’t be happening anywhere.”

Milwaukee community activist Vaun Mayes has also found it difficult to ignore the tone of the gun violence conversation over the last week. Mayes mentors youth in the predominantly African American neighborhood of Sherman Park through his organization Program The Parks. Mayes also responds to a variety of community needs through the separate organization, Community Task Force. His work has also been entangled in a federal case against him, which Mayes’ supporters have compared to historic FBI antagonism of civil rights leaders.

Through Community Task Force, Mayes has become involved in numerous candlelight vigils for people who’ve died of gun violence in Milwaukee’s low-income communities. He finds it striking that these incidents have become rather normal, as compared to the jarring shock to the public when they occur in suburban communities.

“Those schools, even ones that have had racism and violence incidents, still don’t get negative connotations afterwards,” Mayes told Wisconsin Examiner, speaking of suburban schools which have reported incidents. “It’s more like, ‘Oh those poor students and those one or two troubled students.”

Conversely, Mayes feels that students in the Milwaukee Public Schools don’t get the same sympathies. “Let’s throw MPS and it’s students away. They’re all violent and dumb and on their way to jail anyway,” he says sarcastically. At the end of the day, Mayes says that access to resources makes all the difference, whether it’s violence within schools or out in the community.

School becomes a military setting

But how should those resources be allocated? Some people call for better funded mental health treatment, while others advocate for heightened school security—including more police in schools, metal detectors at the door, searches of students’ belongings and other invasive practices.

Jalah Bates, part of a group of students from Wauwatosa West High School pushing for gun reform, noted that this kind of security isn’t a popular idea in his suburban district. “Personally, I feel that if we really have to go to a school where metal detectors and more armed forces are being placed in schools, there’s no point. We’re not attending school anymore at that point. We’re being prepared for almost like a military setting.”

Smith also does not support the idea of enforcing that type of setting in a school. In fact, he says it breeds “intimidation and fear.” Clancy’s take as a parent is similar: “I think kids grow into the expectations we have for them. If we make schools into high-security, over-policed zones, we’re telling kids we expect the worst of them. And to some extent, kids will meet that expectation.”

Like Mayes, Clancy says the issue goes back to how resources are allocated. Whether it’s increasing security, or providing more councilors, mentors and advisers, “either way, we’re going to spend a lot of money,” says Clancy. “When we plan for kids to do great things, we put the programs in place for them to accomplish those plans.”

Bates feels the high-security approach promotes the school-to-prison pipeline, in addition to putting more stress on teachers. “It puts the teachers in a predicament,” Bates told Wisconsin Examiner. Teachers must accept the possibility that they will have to go outside their role as educators, and make decisions to protect their kids, even putting their lives on the line. “I would hate for my teacher to have to decide whether it’s going to be my life or theirs,” Smith told Wisconsin Examiner, “if we’re really discussing the need for prevention methods, then we really need to get to the root cause of why these young people are bringing guns in schools.”

Gov. Tony Evers recently gave an interview in which he emphasized the need for increased mental health funding.

In response, Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly Robin Vos shot back that “after the governor vetoed tens of millions in mental health funding in the state budget, it’s good that he’s starting to see the error in his ways and is open to working on the real problem.” (Evers redirected much of that funding within the budget to cover mental health needs, and Republicans tried and failed to override Evers’ actions.)

Vos, who brought together a task force on mental health funding, said, “Republicans have led the way in expanding mental health treatment opportunities in schools over the past several budgets. The current spending plan doubles the funding for student mental health programs.” Evers has offered to work with Republicans on mental health issues.

More than mental health

Bates agrees that mental health is a factor, but it isn’t the only one, she says. She suggests perhaps schools should do regular mental health checks on students, to catch problems before violence occurs.

Michael Orlowski, another student activist from Wauwatosa West, says there’s more to the equation. Among the things the group of high school students is pushing for is what Orlowski calls “common sense gun reform.” Specifically, he suggests strengthening background checks for gun purchasers, allowing extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs), and reinstating laws which prevented the selling of a firearm until 48 hours after the Department Of Justice (DOJ) completed background checks on the customer. While mental health is a critical factor, it’s these gun-safety measures that Orlowski’s group is pushing for.

Orlowski was reading Facebook comments about articles on the Wauwatosa West students and noticed several people blamed the teens for being bullies, and stated that being bullied is a key reason some teens feel the need to commit gun violence in schools. At his high school, Orlowski says that students are generally accepting of everyone regardless of their background. He feels that the issues fueling school safety problems have less to do with how students treat one another, and more to do with ensuring that guns can’t fall into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

Not all schools are the same, however. Bates noted a conversation she had with a school staff member who shared a different perspective on gun control. Having grown up in an inner-city school, the staff member said it wasn’t uncommon for students to have firearms as protection during their commutes to school through less-safe neighborhoods.

“They knew that the gun wasn’t for them,” says Bates, “it was more for when they had to go home and walk through the neighborhoods that they were living in.” She believes it’s partly this normalization of guns in certain areas that contributes to whether an incident gets national news play. “With suburban schools it’s not a typical thing because we’re considered to live in these ‘safer’ neighborhoods where you wouldn’t expect something like that to happen.”

Caught in the crossfire

Samara Pagach, age 20, agrees. She was caught in crossfire while leaving a concert in Milwaukee in the summer of 2019. Pagach survived unharmed, but a round caught her friend in the foot. “From my own experience, I feel that in certain areas, such as Milwaukee, these issues have become so normalized,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “After my experience, I’ve realized that many people don’t understand that gun violence at this caliber is anything other than normal.” Having months to process the sudden and seemingly random incident she says, “it makes me disheartened that many people feel the gun violence we experience in Milwaukee is normal.”

Nevertheless, both Bates and Orlowski recall several times throughout their middle-school and high-school careers when threats of violence were made with frequency. At times, they feel these incidents are kept, “on the hush-hush.” The teens say that emails are sent out to students and parents after a threat has already been investigated and cleared.

“In our middle-school years there were so many threats that it was just ridiculous,” says Bates. “There were times in middle school where we would all get sent home early because it was so bad.” In meetings with students from other schools, Orlowski has heard similar stories. “It’s always kept on the down-low,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “We understand that it could freak people out, but we don’t like how hidden it is.” The Wauwatosa Police Department, in a suburb of Milwaukee, confirmed that there have been about 158 calls for service to Wauwatosa West High School, and 92 for Wauwatosa East High School. This figure includes all calls for service, not just threats made against students.

Aware that communities outside of suburbia often get left out of these conversations, the Wauwatosa West students are forming a coalition of teens from across various districts and zip codes. “The reason why we’re marching is the fear of thinking, are we next?” Says Orlowski. “People keep commenting, ‘why are they marching out for incidents involving a pellet gun and a knife?” says Orlowski. “My response to that is, so are we going to wait for a school shooting to happen?” The teens are planning further actions, including walk outs, marches and protests.

Going forward, Smith urges that the conversation about creating a safer environment for schools be focused on “restorative practices.” Methods which, “focus on elevating the individual as well as elevating the community.”