Silicon Valley officials call for gun violence prevention in schools
Gun violence became the number one cause of death for children in 2020. County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan is calling for a multilevel approach to gun violence prevention. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    Silicon Valley school districts and officials are pushing for new approaches to preventing gun violence, while experts question whether police on campuses add to school safety.

    At an event hosted as part of the House Democrats’ Gun Violence Prevention Day of Action, a number of officials including San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Congressmember Zoe Lofgren and state Sen. Dave Cortese lent their support to gun violence prevention measures in government and schools.

    Mary Ann Dewan, county superintendent of schools, declared gun violence a public health crisis. She said gun violence remains the top concern for parents in public schools and surpassed motor vehicle accidents as the No. 1 cause of death for children and teenagers in 2020.

    “Schools have taken a number of actions over the years, including conducting active shooter drills on school campuses to help prepare students in their community,” said Dewan, also a San José Spotlight columnist. “While this is seemingly useful, it does not address any of the root causes of gun violence that threaten our children.”

    School safety efforts are increasingly focused on gun violence prevention, rather than dealing with the aftermath of mass shootings and other events. But the issue of campus safety also collides with the debate regarding police on campus, which community members argue could lead to traumatic experiences at schools and beyond.

    San Jose Unified School District is addressing gun violence by focusing on both physical safety and mental health, said Jose Magana, a board member running for reelection. The district has wellness centers and recently included gun storage safety tips in its handbook for families to encourage gun safety.

    “I was a teacher during (the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting). I had that firsthand experience of having to work with students to explain to them the dangers of gun violence,” Magana told San José Spotlight. “There’s so much that we can do in the education space. At the end of the day, this gun violence issue is larger than us: we need everyone to be on board.”

    The district formed an advisory committee last December to address campus safety and SJPD presence at schools. The district briefly voted to keep police off campus for the 2021-22 school year before bringing officers back in limited capacity as security for large events. The committee will factor in the role of law enforcement in the event of emergencies, said spokesperson Jennifer Maddox.

    Prevention measures

    Preventing gun violence at school requires an approach focused on public health and care, said Ron Avi Astor, a UCLA professor of school safety and social welfare. Gun violence prevention policies tend to envision threats coming from outside of schools, when reality shows students can perpetuate gun violence as well, requiring solutions such as widespread curriculum on gun safety or better mental health support.

    “If you had settings that were caring enough, supportive enough, had enough resources around (students), had enough social networks that were built to lift up kids, then kids would never actually bring those weapons,” Astor told San José Spotlight. “It’s like a vaccine.”

    Many school districts are employing a multi-faceted approach to gun violence prevention, such as implementing wellness programs alongside stricter measures like see-through backpacks or police presence, Astor said. But relying on law enforcement for protection can impact students’ ability to concentrate, mental wellbeing and more. Effects disproportionately impact students of color, especially those from Black and brown communities, Astor said.

    “If you feel like you’re in a prison, and you feel like you’re being surveilled, and you feel like people see you as a potential target… you’re going to feel anxious,” Astor told San José Spotlight. “There isn’t a lot of conversation on what does it mean to have our whole country on high alert forever.”

    San Jose is no stranger to gun violence: in the wake of the VTA mass shooting which claimed 10 lives last year, lawmakers pushed for gun control measures including bans on straw purchases and ghost guns. The city could be the first in the nation to require liability insurance and an annual fee for gun owners, a policy that could take effect in January.

    Having police on campus is not an effective solution to gun violence, said Rachel Michelson, a member of the Moms Demand Action San Jose chapter present at the news conference. Moms Demand Action is an advocacy group focused on gun violence prevention and education.

    “We’re telling folks to store their guns, and we’re talking about suicides (by gun),” Michelson told San  José Spotlight. “Having that knee (jerk) reaction in the long term is not what’s going to keep our kids safe.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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