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Address Racism and Gun Violence Without Stigmatizing Kids, Groups Urge Key Senator

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Corrected

A coalition of advocacy groups have urged the top senator for education policy to address white supremacy and gun violence without pushing ideas that endanger students. 

Groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and the National Education Association sent this message in a Friday letter to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee. They were responding to a recent report that at the request of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Alexander was soliciting committee staff for proposals to improve school safety after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio—neither of which occurred at a school. 

The organizations believe that trying to address mass violence by focusing on mental health issues fails to get at the root causes of shootings like those in El Paso, the murder of black churchgoers in 2015 in Charleston, S.C., and other incidents. (There's been no evidence so far that the shooting in Dayton was motivated by any form of racism.) And such an approach unfairly stigmatizes students with disabilities, they also said. 

"It is crucial that that attention and leadership focus on the rise of white supremacist terror and government inaction on gun violence, and not on dangerous policies to marginalize and criminalize children in schools," the coalition told Alexander in the letter. 

The letter also warns that those with disabilities are more likely to be the victims of violence and not its perpetrators: "Diminishing the privacy rights of children, increasing their contact with police, and wrongly suggesting that children with disabilities pose a threat to their peers only serves to create more fear, danger, and injustice in our schools."

On Thursday, President Donald Trump said he had productive meetings with "school officials" and others, including mental health professionals and the National Rifle Association, about ways to prevent mass shootings. In the past, the president has sometimes indicated his support for broadening background checks for gun purchases, but has walked back those remarks or backed off them. 


After the El Paso and Dayton shootings, Trump also spoke about the importance of examining mental health issues when addressing mass shootings. He's also floated the idea of having more states enact "red flag" laws to allow authorities to restrict individuals' access to firearms if they are deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. 

A federal school safety commission Trump launched last year ultimately did not recommend policies such as universal background checks, but did encourage schools to consider arming staff if they think it's appropriate. 

Despite the lack of a direct connection between schools and the two most recent high-profile mass shootings, schools have often featured in recent discussions about such violence. Earlier this month, an Education Week story looked at the fears of Latino students after the El Paso shooting, in which Latinos were targeted. 

The group's letter is below:

Dear Chairman Alexander,

On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States, and the 27 undersigned organizations, we urge you and your colleagues to take sweeping and consequential action to address the confluence of two dangerous forces: the rise of white supremacist terror and our federal government's inaction on common-sense gun safety.

The tragedies in El Paso, Charleston, Charlottesville, Oak Creek, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and so many other places may have targeted different communities, but each was spurred by the same force: white supremacy. In your August 9 letter to the members of your committee, you asked for recommendations that could help prevent future mass shootings. This goal deserves the attention and leadership of every member of our government, even when core policies at issue are outside of specific jurisdictions. It is crucial that that attention and leadership focus on the rise of white supremacist terror and government inaction on gun violence, and not on dangerous policies to marginalize and criminalize children in schools.

Your letter states that you have asked committee staff to "evaluate existing mental health and school safety programs." We think it is important to clarify that addressing mental health issues is not a solution to gun violence. Diminishing the privacy rights of children, increasing their contact with police, and wrongly suggesting that children with disabilities pose a threat to their peers only serves to create more fear, danger, and injustice in our schools. Indeed, people with disabilities are far more likely to be the victims of gun violence, not the perpetrators. Marginalized children must not be scapegoated to distract from white supremacist terror and inaction on gun violence.

We demand the Senate pass common-sense gun safety laws. U.S. Senate leadership has had over 200 days to take up gun safety legislation passed by the House. In just the first weekend of August, 31 people were killed in mass acts of gun violence in 24 hours, and on average 100 Americans will be shot and killed every day the Senate does not act.[i] Furthermore, since Senator McConnell assumed his role as Senate Majority Leader, there have been 1,654 mass shootings in America. That's almost one per day.

We demand the Congress strengthen hate crime laws. To fight hate, we must first understand it. In order to make meaningful progress towards combating violence against our most vulnerable communities, we must have reliable, accurate data collection. The bicameral, bipartisan Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act will improve our government's approach to addressing hate.

All children deserve to be safe and treated fairly in schools - and that goal can only be achieved by addressing the rise of white supremacist terror and gun violence. Our children deserve better.

This item has been corrected to reflect that although the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights initially stated the letter was sent to several senators, in fact the letter was only sent to Sen. Lamar Alexander. 

Photo: Olivia Attaguile holds her brother Jonny Attaguile during a candlelight vigil for victims of the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. (John Locher/AP)

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