Over the summer, a post on social media complained about President Trump not receiving credit for the sudden pause in school shootings. Of course, as one response noted, school violence tends to be absent when schools are no longer in session.
This virtual exchange exposes the dangers of both partisan sniping and uninformed public debates.
As K-12 schools and colleges begin new academic years, we are all once again concerned about the safety of students, faculty, and staff.
However, actual policies and practices that would better insure that safety face many hurdles. One problem with implementing effective strategies for safer schools is a lack of credible data.
Anya Kamenetz reports for NPR: “Our reporting highlights just how difficult it can be to track school-related shootings and how researchers, educators and policymakers are hindered by a lack of data on gun violence.”
This confusion over how often school shootings occur is made even more complicated since high-profile mass shootings at schools tend to create a false and distorted picture of schools. Despite what political, media, and public debates suggest, numerous studies reveal that students are safer in schools than in their communities.
And here is where we must face a powerful but often ignored fact about how to make our schools safer: School safety initiatives must begin by making our communities and wider society safer, including addressing access to and the sheer amount of guns in the U.S.
School safety measures have proven time and again not to be effective. More troubling, some safety measures have been shown to create less safe environments in our schools.
Metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and resource officers are all widely supported by politicians and the public, yet they do not create safer schools. And as a study released by the National Association of School Psychologists reveals,
There is no clear research evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence (Addington, 2009; Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, & Jimerson, 2010; Casella, 2006; Garcia, 2003). In fact, research has shown that their presence negatively impacts students’ perceptions of safety and even increases fear among some students (Bachman, Randolph, & Brown, 2011; Schreck & Miller, 2003). In addition, studies suggest that restrictive school security measures have the potential to harm school learning environments (Beger, 2003; Phaneuf, 2009).
After intense media coverage of shootings at schools in the 2017–2018 school year, many have been compelled to call for more people being armed, even arguing for increased armed officer presence in schools and arming teachers.
If we can set aside partisan agendas and popular support for policies that lack credibility, we must confront that security cameras were present at Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech, that arm resource officers were present at Columbine and Parkland, and that turning schools into fortresses surrounded by barbed wire and gated with metal detectors is more likely to criminalize our students than protect them.
Ultimately, however, our choice is not between fatalism — throwing up our hands and doing nothing — and grasping at misleading and even harmful policies that give the appearance of making schools safer.
First, the U.S. is well overdue on a reckoning with our gun-lust. We have too many guns in the U.S., and we allow far too much access to those guns. Internationally, we are an obscene outlier in gun violence and access.
If school and community safety is a real concern in our country, we will find the political and public will to change our laws and our behavior. Without that will, our schools will remain ground zero for tragedies that could be avoided.
Next, of course, school policies and practices can have positive consequences for safety.
After Columbine, in fact, the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education cautioned against safety structures (officers, metal detectors, cameras, etc.) and stressed:
Specifically, Initiative findings suggest that [school] officials may wish to consider focusing their efforts to formulate strategies for preventing these attacks in two principal areas:
• developing the capacity to pick up on and evaluate available or knowable information that might indicate that there is a risk of a targeted school attack; and,
• employing the results of these risk evaluations or “threat assessments” in developing strategies to prevent potential school attacks from occurring.
In other words, school safety is about paying close attention to our students, their needs and their struggles. School safety is a human issue, not something that can be barricaded or watched over closed circuit.
Ill-informed “gotcha” social media exchanges reveal the essential problems with our political and public responses to school violence: We are too often driven by our hearts and our guts while refusing to see and listen to the often hard answers for genuinely dangerous realities.