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Will Urban School Districts Have a Voice in the Debate Over Gun Violence?

The main advocacy group for the country's largest school districts, the majority of them urban school systems, is calling on the federal government to step up efforts on gun violence and school safety.

Wading into the charged debate on gun control since last month's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Fla., which left 17 students and educators dead, the Council of the Great City Schools wants Congress to ban assault-style weapons and "large-capacity ammunition cartridges" (except those needed for law enforcement or military uses), expand universal background checks for gun buyers, and close the so-called gun-show loophole. 

The group is also calling for the federal government to expand Gun-Free School Zones. It wants $1 billion in grants for states and school districts to beef up counseling and mental-health services for students and another $1 billion to local school systems to improve security measures, including retrofitting buildings and enhancing safety training for school employees and law enforcement officials.  

The council is also calling for more data and research on gun violence, including mandating that state and local law enforcement agencies report all fire-arm related injuries and deaths to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, strengthening the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and freeing up the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence. It opposes arming teachers.

Broward County is one of the 70 school systems that make up the Council of the Great City Schools.

Whether any of those proposals gain traction is yet to be seen. While some of the Stoneman Douglas survivors who are calling for stricter gun laws mobilized hundreds of thousands of people last weekend for the March For Our Lives in Washington and sibling rallies across the country, supporters of the National Rifle Association are also pushing back against any attempts they perceive as curbing gun rights. CNN reported on March 28 that donations to the NRA grew after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.

President Trump has been a critic of gun-free school zones, and vowed to end them while on the campaign trail. After the Feb. 14 attack at Stoneman Douglas High School he repeated his opposition to designated zones, saying they invite "violence and danger."  And Republicans, who control both the House and the Senate, so far have favored school safety measures over new gun restrictions.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said the council was following up its calls for action with draft legislation on the proposed measures that the group hopes will gain bi-partisan support in Congress.

Casserly said that he's already met with congressional representatives—he would not divulge who they were, saying that he'd like the broadest support possible.

Members of the council also met with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and offered to be a resource to the school safety commission DeVos is leading. The commission, which met for the first time this week and is made up of four cabinet secretaries, has been criticized for not including educators or advocates. The department of education has said that teachers, students, and other stakeholders will have an opportunity to provide input.

Building Public Pressure Locally

The council is also asking its districts to pass similar resolutions. Those local efforts will be aimed at "heightening the public's awareness of the issues and making it clear that urban schools stand foursquare with the students from Douglas High School in Broward County, and to assert as much pressure on Congress and the public to act convincingly on this issue," Casserly said.

While black students were among the speakers on the main stage at the March For Our Lives rally in Washington, some have asked why the day-to-day shootings in the cities in which they live have not attracted the same level of attention and calls to action as the Stoneman Douglas attack. Forty-percent of the students in the districts that make up the council's member schools are Latino, while 29 percent are black. Twenty percent are white, according to the council's data.

Christina Martin, a student at Thurgood Marshall Academy in the District of Columbia, which lost two students to gun violence this year, told the Associated Press: "We should have got the same attention in return."

Jaheim McRae, 15, from Scotland County, N.C., told Education Week that the media's portrayal of the deaths of black girls and boys was extremely troublesome.

"It just amazes me that when an African-American male gets shot and it goes on the news, everybody looks at it and says, 'He's African-American, he was probably a troublemaker, he's a gang member, his life doesn't matter,' " said McRae, whose personal experience with gun violence was one of the major reasons why he left his home in South Carolina early Saturday morning to attend the march in Washington. He was shot in the leg while attending a party.

"As a human being it hurts my feelings that they just label African- Americans like that," he said. "But it goes deeper. I would never drop out of school. I would never be in a gang. ... I would not do anything like that. I'm actually going to do something with my life. I'm going to be the African-American that's going to break the stereotype of dropping out of school or being a father at a young age. I'm actually going to go to college, have a family, and have a career. All African-Americans are not the way the media portrays us to be."

The students are right, Casserly said, though he added that council has been consistent in decrying gun violence and the killings of African-Americans by police. The council also worked with the Obama administration on school safety measures, he said.  

"I think there is some truth to the fact that sometimes the day-to-day street violence in many cities gets overlooked, in comparison to these larger killings," he said. "But the truth of the matter is that there are guns involved in both of these kinds of incidents, and we've been very consistent in speaking out about both kinds of incidents—the street violence, the police shootings, and the mass killings."

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