We know what makes schools safer — it's not knee-jerk policies

We know what makes schools safer — it's not knee-jerk policies
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Bulletproof backpacks. Ballistic whiteboards. Fortified entrances and target-hardened classroom doors. Armed teachers and mandatory mental screening for pre-teens.

These proposed approaches for preventing and managing school shootings have been discussed in the weeks following the horrific attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. But are we focused on realistic, proven best practices that make a difference, or just knee-jerk measures that provide emotional security blankets and false perceptions of increased safety?

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Policies and programs often unfold  quickly at times of high-impact critical incidents such as a mass school shooting. This does not automatically translate into meaningful and practical change that provides useful resources to support educators and public safety officials tasked with keeping schools safe. In fact, such policy changes typically lack appropriate focus and fail to survive subsequent budget cuts once the bright lights of the cameras are gone and public attention has moved on to the next crisis.

 

To be effective, public policy must be driven by forces that have the right frontline, professional disciplinary voices providing input in the process. A “do something, anything; do it now” mantra has guided public discourse and political reactions in the post-Sandy Hook and post-Parkland conversations. Yet the best school safety practices are not always things that create the appearance of heightened security. They’re often invisible.

What does not work   

Politicizing school safety does not make schools safer. It detracts from conversations and actions focused on policies, programs and funding those strategies that work. The political hijacking of school safety by gun control and gun rights special interests is a perfect example of why little-to-no action on federal school safety policy and programs has occurred. A skewed political and media discourse narrowly focused on polarized positions on gun issues quickly fades, while discourse on programs that truly make schools safer never occurs.

Following the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, the Clinton administration and Republican-led Congress took bipartisan action to create the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS), originally called the Emergency Response and Crisis Management (ERCM) grants, and the COPS in Schools program that funded School Resource Officer (SRO) staffing and training. The Safe Schools, Healthy Students promoted improvements in school mental health service coordination and programs to reduce school violence. These programs required formal evaluation, and the lessons learned on what worked were reported to schools across the nation. But over the years, as the spotlight on school safety dimmed, funding for these and other programs eventually was eliminated.

What works

Parents, students and educators want conversations — and action — on things that will make schools safer. They want to know what elected officials can do to help them thwart plots and prevent violence. They do not want highbrow discussions in the media on violence or societal culture. They want training for teachers, school secretaries, custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria staff on preventing a shooting and strengthening school emergency plans to better respond to incidents that cannot be prevented.

Federal and state officials can support a number of things that schools can do to strengthen school safety:

  • Assess security and emergency preparedness plans on an ongoing basis. Make sure that what’s on paper would work in a real emergency. Integrate balanced physical security measures with staff and student training and emergency planning. Staff schools with School Resource Officers and security programs.
  • Reasonably diversify school emergency drills. Practice lockdown drills during lunch periods and between classes. Block a door during a fire drill, or recall students quickly once they exit to test their return time. Perform tabletop exercises in which school crisis teams and first responders work through hypothetical scenarios.
  • Create a culture of reporting. Teach students that reporting a plot or other students who carry weapons is not snitching; it may save lives.
  • Strengthen student behavioral and mental health supports. Counselors and psychologists are spread thin in the best of schools. Beef up direct support services and community-based referral networks for kids and families in need. Create school threat assessment teams, training and protocols.
  • Improve data integration. People in schools and other organizations have pieces of information on school shooters prior to incidents. We need to share information within and across agencies serving youths.
  • See something, say something, do something. Kids will report something if they know an adult will do something. Design protocols and train adults on what to do. This includes parents, teachers, school support staff, law enforcement and mental health professionals.

The question is never whether safety becomes a priority in the weeks following a school shooting; the question is whether school safety will be discussed in Congress, in statehouses and in schools months or years down the road.

State governments can take a leadership role in bringing resources to educators and school safety officials. In Oklahoma, a Commission on School Security in 2013 led to the formation of the Oklahoma School Security Institute to standardize safety and security training, which created a mental health first aid training pilot program; changed laws to require school intruder drills and reporting requirements for firearms; and created a state school security reporting tip line. Following the Columbine attacks, Indiana enacted a law requiring school districts to have certified safety specialists who receive ongoing state-provided training in best practices that they share in their schools.

Still, even with federal and state support, school safety ultimately is a local issue. Reasonable costs for school security staffing, physical security and training must become a part of school operating budgets. Most importantly, school safety requires a commitment of time, often more so than money, to make sure that the prevention, preparedness and response measures are in place and continually updated.

We know some of the things that work to make schools safer. Do we, as a nation, have the political will to do these things — and sustain these efforts — for the long haul?

Kenneth S. Trump is the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based national school security and emergency preparedness consulting firm. He is a four-time congressional expert witness, the author of three books on school safety.