By Laura Towvim
When tragedy strikes at a school—such as the unthinkable event at Sandy Hook Elementary—the nation mourns. Soon after, politicians, special interest groups, and parents demand decisive action to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again. Schools may propose quick-fix security measures—locked doors, armed teachers or guards, security cameras, metal detectors.
However, experts warn against these types of physical security measures as the primary focus of school safety planning. Following the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, 183 organizations and more than 200 experts in school safety, both researchers and practitioners, came together to create a position statement on how best to address school violence. The statement includes this warning: “Inclinations to intensify security in schools should be reconsidered. We cannot and should not turn our schools into fortresses.”
Indeed, despite the media attention to extreme violent incidents, rates of both youth violence and gun violence have decreased steadily since the early 1990s. Schools remain among the safest places for youth—less than 2 percent of all youth homicides occur on school grounds. The vast majority of schools will never experience this type of violence; thus, to guard against it with extreme physical security measures is unnecessary and also sends the message to students that they are unsafe.
"Policy makers, educators, public safety professionals, mental health professionals, and families need to focus their collective energies on evidence-based school safety measures, not quick fix reactions that defy evidence and research. —NASP Press Release on School Safety
Consequences of Increased “Fortification”
Research and experience show that increased physical safety measures often do not result in safer schools and instead can have unintended, harmful consequences. According to NASP’s Research on School Security: The Impact of Security Measures on Students, studies of the effectiveness of increased security measures in schools show little impact on actual rates of violence, and may even be linked to increased levels of disorder in the school. At the same time, the presence of security measures, such as armed guards and security cameras, can make students feel less safe and more fearful, diminishing the learning environment within the school.
Increasing security may have other negative impacts. For example, decreased feelings of trust between students and adults can make it less likely that students will communicate openly with staff or notify them of suspected threats. A focus on physical security may also drain schools of financial resources, leaving them unable to implement other changes that may have a greater overall impact—such as improved mental health service delivery or programs that promote a positive school climate.
Physical security measures can often be implemented quickly and easily, but they divert attention from a careful consideration of the needs and challenges facing a particular school and from evidence-based solutions that could best improve school safety over the long haul. By addressing only one specific type of threat that has a low likelihood of occurring (e.g., an intruder), many physical security measures also fail to truly prepare schools for the range of threats that could affect students.
Effective School Safety Planning
Physical safety is only one component of an overall school safety plan. A balanced, comprehensive approach to school safety acknowledges that school safety starts with a strong community—one that fosters a positive school climate and open relationships between students and staff. Safer schools employ evidence-based programs that promote a supportive, nurturing environment for students, offer skill-building interventions for students at risk for behavioral problems, and provide mental health services for those in need.
At the same time, every school should engage in a meaningful school safety planning process that considers a range of potential threats and hazards, implements policies and procedures to prevent harmful events from occurring, and trains staff to respond to emergencies in a way that will diminish negative effects. To that end, effective school safety planning does the following:
- Considers a school’s unique physical, social, and academic environments that may impact school safety and student learning, balancing the need for both physical and psychological safety of students and staff.
- Engages a multi-disciplinary team, including teachers, administrators, staff, and first responders,in a planning process. If possible, the team can consider hiring an experienced school safety expert to guide the process.
- Uses data to drive an assessment of the likelihood and impact of potential risks and hazards, including intruders, bullying, and interpersonal violence, as well as natural disasters, such as tornados, fires, and floods.
- Weighs the benefits of proposed physical security measures with potential pitfalls. For example, locked doors may decrease feelings of openness that create a welcoming, cohesive community; bullet-proof glass may make it harder for first responders to get through windows or doors in an emergency.
- Establishes and regularly reviews and updates written policies and procedures for threat assessment and management, early intervention, crisis prevention and response, and emergency preparedness.
- Trains school staff to respond effectively in case of emergencies. Procedures and policies are only as strong as the people carrying them out, so regular staff training is key.
- Establishes partnerships with local law enforcement and first responders. Law enforcement and other first responders can help walk school staff through crisis-preparedness exercises. In addition, having intimate knowledge of the school can help first responders improve their response time in case of an emergency.
A Comprehensive Approach in Action
Alhambra Unified School District, a Safe Schools/Healthy Students site, was recently featured in California Schools Magazine for its Gateways to Success program, which has successfully combined effective prevention and intervention services with improved security measures.
Program Director of Student Services Laurel Bear, Ph.D., explains that “The hardware, security drills, campus plans, resource officers, these are all critical to Gateway’s success—but they wouldn’t be effective in reducing violence unless the district also included extensive student and family supports such as mental health evaluation and treatment for students and families.”
This approach has resulted in decreases in violent crime, truancy, and suicide attempts. An annual school climate survey also reveals significant improvement in the way parents and students feel about their local school.
Schools have a responsibility to keep students safe. Indeed, feeling safe is a precursor to learning. Despite their appeal, increased extreme physical safety measures are unlikely to achieve this goal. Instead, schools will benefit most from thoughtful school safety planning combined with evidence-based prevention efforts that create a positive, caring school environment.
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