What makes a school safe?
This year has seen a whirlwind of activity on school safety issues, especially in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school tragedy. Much of the response from public officials has been knee-jerk and symbolic – visible measures to show the public that action is being taken, regardless of whether those measures are effective.
But what does make a school safe?
Since the Parkland shooting, legislatures have allocated more than $1 billion to school security, with school police funding being one of the big items. In June 2018, the Pennsylvania legislature adopted Act 44, which expanded funding for various school “hardening” measures, such as adding police and hardware to campuses. It also led to the establishment of committees tasked with creating statewide guidelines for assessing school security and safety. I served on one of those committees — the Behavioral Health and School Climate Committee (BHSC) — and experienced firsthand the school-safety debate among professionals.
What I have witnessed most in these debates is a contradiction: on one hand, an emphasis on “hardening” schools with police, building security, and new protocols, and on the other hand, acknowledgment that more school-based student support services are necessary and that schools need staff who can work with young people, get to know them, and help them manage emotional and behavioral issues.
Why are these contradictory? Because the hardening measures consume a disproportionate amount of resources in already understaffed schools, while exposing more young people — who neither threaten nor attempt to carry out a shooting — to the justice system. In many schools, having more police in schools means more arrests or summary citations against students for noncompliant behavior. In other words, some of the measures taken to secure schools may end up damaging the lives of many students, without preventing shootings.
We’ve seen this act before, but can we learn new lessons? Fortunately, applicable research can guide us. A recent seven-year study in North Carolina compared middle schools that used state funds to hire and train school police (known as School Resource Officers, or SROs) with those that did not. The study concluded that participating middle schools did not report a reduction in assaults, homicide, bomb threats, substance possession or use, or weapons possession.
Historically, the growth in the number of SROs has been driven more by national media attention about school violence and the availability of grant funding (federal and state) than by an uptick in violent incidents in specific schools. In a national survey of principals and law enforcement funded by the U.S. Justice Department, less than 4 percent of each group stated that the decision to start an SRO program was due to the level of violence in schools. In the survey, the top reason given by police officials for starting an SRO program was “disorder” (23.5 percent); for principals, it was “national media attention about school violence” (24.5 percent).
An American Civil Liberties Union report on Race, Discipline, and School Safety scheduled for release in January 2019, based on federal data collected from 96,000 public schools nationwide, shows a stark imbalance between student support services and school police — and the resulting consequences. Nationwide, over 14 million students attend public schools that have at least one police officer, but no counselor, psychologist, or nurse. Schools with resident police report 3.5 times as many arrests as other schools. Students of color and students with disabilities are arrested and referred to police at significantly higher rates than other students. At the same time, more than 90 percent of public schools do not meet the ratios recommended by professional associations of students to counselors, psychologists, social workers, and nurses.
Many Pennsylvania school officials will say that the best school safety investment is to increase school-based student support staff and services. Privately, some worry that the “hardening” policies will harm students who pose no threat of mass violence in their schools.
In a small step forward, Pennsylvania’s School Safety and Security Committee, established by Act 44, did adopt our BHSC Committee recommendation that one criterion for assessing school safety and security be this: “(S)chools employing any type of security staff should collect information about the staff, students’, and parents’/community perceptions of that presence.” The analysis should look at how different sub-populations of students view the impact of the security presence and examine “disproportionality and the issue of equity.” In other words, does a security presence result in certain students having more negative school experiences without justification?
However, this is not enough. We need more adults working in schools who are sensitive to the emotional needs of students so that they can identify trouble spots and provide support and referrals. We must also heed the voices of young people who have become active in response to school tragedies, demanding that legislatures and local governments take gun issues seriously and address them.
Harold Jordan is a senior policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and a member of the Notebook board of directors.