As it has been in school districts across the nation, security has been top of mind for Metro Nashville Public Schools as students return to class for the year. The heightened attention to safety follows the Uvalde, Texas, shooting at Robb Elementary School in May, in which 19 students and two teachers were killed — one of more than 400 mass shootings that have occurred across the country so far in 2022. What heightened school security should look like, however, varies depending on who you ask. 

Both MNPS and the Metro Nashville Police Department take responsibility for school safety. On Aug. 2, Director of Schools Adrienne Battle and MNPD Chief John Drake announced an increased police presence throughout the district for the 2022-2023 school year — “the highest levels ever,” said Drake. 

The plan includes enhanced police presence on elementary school campuses. While school resource officers — armed and uniformed officers who receive special training to work in schools — were already present in middle and high schools, on-duty police officers are now patrolling elementary campuses as well. They will be “highly visible” as MNPS and MNPD work to establish “safety ambassador” roles in elementary schools, leaning on retired police officers to provide security that doesn’t include armed officers. Safety ambassadors will work with MNPS and the newly created School Safety Division of MNPD. These measures — along with security vestibules, single points of entry, doors that lock from the inside, security cameras and more — constitute MNPS’ defenses against potential threats.

In the past, Battle pushed back against police officers in elementary schools. In an Aug. 2 email to parents, however, she said, “I think this approach strikes an appropriate balance between the desire for added safety and security and the need to avoid the criminalization of childhood behavior that could come from using a policing response to incidents instead of a restorative approach.”

Critics often cite studies that indicate students of color and those with disabilities are negatively and disproportionately impacted, and in some cases abused, by SROs. They also refer to the school-to-prison pipeline, which the National Education Association describes as “the practice of pushing kids out of school and toward the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” Another frequent recent criticism: The large police presence at Robb Elementary failed to protect children in May.

Nashville’s Southern Movement Committee, an organization focused on facilitating solutions for racial justice, discussed student safety at a town hall on Saturday. The event featured a panel of education stakeholders and local leaders, including Juvenile Court Clerk Lonnell Matthews and school board member Christiane Buggs. They discussed not only the implications and racially disproportionate impact of police presence in schools, but also its systemic factors and what community members can do to support students moving forward — including providing access to free meals and creative outlets and facilitating community support, social and emotional learning, and restorative justice practices.

“Parents, teachers [and] students … need to know their rights, especially when it comes into contact with law enforcement,” says Jamel Campbell-Gooch, an organizer for the Southern Movement Committee.

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MNPS elementary school teacher Tanya Drossner

MNPS elementary school teacher Tanya Drossner is among those who feel comfortable with a heightened police presence. She says some of her colleagues feel safer with SROs while others don’t. Regardless, they’re reviewing details around how to react to potential school shootings, like how to let people into a locked classroom door without jeopardizing the class’s safety or what to do if they hear gunshots.

“We need to have policies that don’t make it so easy to acquire these guns in the first place,” says Drossner. “And we need action. We need it from state and federal legislators, and it’s important. We need it now. We don’t need to wait.” 

Following the Uvalde shooting, Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order in June that emphasizes “accountability and transparency around existing school safety planning.” While the order highlights actions that parents and government agencies can take, it doesn’t mention guns, and Lee said when signing the bill that he isn’t considering gun laws in this context. Last year he passed a law eliminating handgun permit requirements despite opposition from state law enforcement agencies.

Lee has also asked folks to report suspicious activity on the SafeTN app, which is advertised as confidential despite a broad privacy policy stating, “We may share information we have collected about you in certain situations.” According to a spokesperson for the Department of Safety and Homeland Security: “If necessary for an investigation, the department may attempt to obtain a name of the person who submitted the report, which may be shared with other law enforcement agencies, courts, and other entities involved in any investigation or prosecution, subject to any protective orders or laws regarding confidentiality.”

“One of the problems with the state intervention is one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work for communities across the state,” says Matthews. “We have rural communities, we have suburban communities, we have urban communities. For a district like Nashville or Shelby County, we have to find better solutions that are going to work with us.” 

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