No, tougher schools don’t make students safer | Opinion

By Elizabeth K. Anthony

The first real possibility of federal gun legislation in decades has been sketched out by a bipartisan group of senators.

This follows the May 23, 2022, school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers before being himself killed in a gunfight. fire with the police.

Perhaps inspired by fears that the shooter entered the school through a door whose lock malfunctioned and encountered few other barriers or restrictions during his attack, the bipartisan proposal would both bolster security measures physical security and the number of mental health workers in schools. It could be in addition to the proposed $1 billion in funding to hire more school counsellors, nurses, social workers and school psychologists.

Another popular approach among some politicians to increase school safety is what is known as school hardening. The hardening encompasses a wide range of physical defenses, such as surveillance cameras, metal detectors, door locking systems, arming teachers and even armed guards. In the weeks following the Uvalde shooting, support for arming teachers and employing police in schools was renewed by leaders of both political parties.

The Uvalde shooting, like all school shootings, raises questions and concerns for parents and community members about how schools might deter a would-be shooter from attacking. Unfortunately, my research and that of others reveals that it is impossible for schools to become safe enough to prevent gun violence.

Dealing with Threats

As a professor of school safety and childhood trauma research, I study how environments support or hinder healthy growth and development. School is an important environment to consider since children spend more than six hours in school every day with their peers and teachers.

Researchers like me use the term school climate to describe the attitudes, beliefs, values, and expectations that hold school life together, and the extent to which community members approve of them. Although physical safety features affect students’ perceptions of school safety, school climate and the actions of teachers and staff also play a role in feelings of safety.

School safety is big business

School safety has become a major industry in the United States. Each year, more than $2.7 billion is spent to strengthen schools.

But there is currently no conclusive evidence that any of these measures prevent school shootings. In some cases, the attackers shot through windows to enter the building or set off fire alarms to get occupants out of the school. Schools’ attempts to make students safer aren’t actually doing it and are costing schools money that could help increase staff and better equip classrooms for learning.

Even inexpensive fixes that security professionals consider best practice, such as locking exterior doors, are of limited effectiveness. Door lock policies are not always enforced. Or, as in the Uvalde shooting, the equipment meant to keep the doors locked malfunctioned. All of these expenses and activities can give students and teachers a false sense of security.

Missed opportunities

School administrators feel compelled to make quick safety decisions, often based on limited or poor information.

When buying equipment, administrators can fall prey to the idea that systems take care of everything, so people don’t need to prepare.

In addition, the enforcement of police, metal detectors, and other punitive measures in schools may increase school violence for historically marginalized students, stimulate higher rates of disciplinary action against students, and reduce the availability of extracurricular activities.

In addition to not being effective in reducing gun violence, an overreliance on surveillance strategies can make students feel less safe at school. The presence of metal detectors has complicated effects and conflicting research results. For example, metal detectors can increase students’ feelings of fear and can also violate privacy. At the same time, they can reduce the number of weapons brought onto campus.

Another complicated answer is locking exercises. While some research suggests they can be effective in preventing school violence and preparing students to respond to a range of emergency scenarios, other research suggests these drills can confuse children and increase fear and anxiety.

Using Evidence to Protect Schools

Complicating the notion of tougher access to school buildings, the fact that approximately half of school shootings are perpetrated by people within the school community – students, alumni, staff or family members – who would likely be allowed into the school and allowed through various security checks.

School safety is not only a physical challenge, but also a psychological one.

A comprehensive approach to school safety actively engages students, teachers, and parents, identifies high-risk individuals using threat assessment techniques, and instructs teachers and administrators to refer those students to services of mental health.

Increasing school mental health services is a proven way to increase school safety and promote a positive school climate, and includes teaching students about conflict management and coping skills. emotional. Research suggests that these efforts promote student well-being, thereby increasing school safety. These services can also help school communities deal with trauma resulting from violence.

Helping schools prepare to implement a comprehensive approach is an important task. Many schools lack the financial resources to pay for these programs and services.

The new legislation provides an opportunity. Schools have historically struggled to fund sufficient numbers of counselors and social workers for the needs of the school community. Especially as COVID-19 relief funds dry up, schools are scrambling to hire and retain enough mental health staff. The new federal proposal could help fund these efforts.

Schools cannot be hardened enough to prevent gun violence. Schools can, however, become physically and psychologically safer so that students can learn and thrive.

Elizabeth K. Anthony is an associate professor of social work at Arizona State University. She wrote this piece for The Conversation, where she first appeared.
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