In an Age of Anxiety, the Three Pillars of School Safety

By Barry Eitel

As parents are in the midst of the back-to-school shopping crush, some are adding a few items to their lists that would have seemed almost ridiculous a generation ago. There is a growing industry creating bulletproof backpacks, and a growing number of parents nationwide looking to purchase these items for their children.

The fear is understandable considering the number of tragic shootings that took place in American schools during the last school year. In February, a teenage boy massacred 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In the months since, the young survivors of that shooting have launched a campaign focused on school safety and gun policy.

The campaign has been extremely successful in gaining publicity for the cause, but the responses from politicians, the media and the general public post-Parkland have been wide-ranging and occasionally contradictory.

A 2014 survey published by the FBI found that almost 25 percent of mass shooting events that took place between 2000 and 2013 in the United States occurred in schools or colleges. School safety is an issue that keeps everyone involved in the U.S. school system, from superintendents to parents, up at night. How can we keep schools safe for the 2018-2019 academic year and beyond?

AASA has outlined clear positions for federal policies that will improve school safety. It will also be a heavily discussed topic at the 2019 National Conference on Education, Feb. 14 to 16, in Los Angeles, exactly one year after the Parkland shooting.

A Comprehensive Approach

AASA supports a three-pronged approach to school safety, according to Noelle Ellerson Ng, AASA associate executive director of policy and advocacy. AASA is pushing to improve support for mental health, bolster the physical safety of schools and establish sensible gun policies in the U.S. These positions were first outlined following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, which resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults.

“If we want to get serious about ending the rate of school massacres, we need to address all three,” says Ellerson Ng, adding that the three strategies together “are stronger than the sum of their parts.”

Mental Health Supports and Services

Many psychologists and educators strongly support increasing the amount of mental health support and services in American schools.

A report by the American Counseling Association found that many school shooters had been the target of intense bullying or had issues with the side effects of certain psychiatric medications. Increasing the support for mental health services can help deter violence before it occurs.

“Due to the exceedingly high percentage of perpetrators who struggle with grief and loss, bullying, depression, anger management, poor problem-solving skills and low self-esteem, there is a rationale and imminent need for school counselors to facilitate counseling groups addressing these topics in the hope of providing these students with the tools that they need to deal with their emotions in a more constructive manner,” wrote Dr. Allison Paolini of Kean University.

AASA believes federal funding for these services should be escalated, too.

Mental health support can include adding social workers and counselors to a school district’s staff. It can also mean extracurricular activities that allow students to engage emotionally as well as ensuring mental health is discussed in the district’s general health curriculum. “It may not seem like explicit counseling, but you’re learning the language, you’re learning the tools,” Ellerson Ng says.

Improving mental health supports in school, she believes, is a proactive step toward ending the rash of school shootings that have defined the 21st century. Buying bulletproof backpacks and the recent drive among some conservatives to arm educators, on the other hand, are reactive steps.

“We don’t want a school where a child needs a bulletproof backpack,” she says.

Building Safer Schools

Another proactive approach toward stopping school shootings, AASA contends, is to focus on building safer schools across the board — from how doors in a school lock to how the entrance is landscaped. New technology can allow school officials or first responders to individually control the locks of different rooms — an assailant can be locked into a hallway by remote, or students can be released when the coast is clear.

Police can be given remote access to a sprinkler system in order to distract a shooter, Ellerson Ng points out, and landscaping can be planned that both deters intruders and allows quick exits for the students inside.

Other strategies, like metal detectors, can be useful on a district-by-district basis, but AASA believes that schools should not feel like fortresses.

That attitude is echoed by the National Association of School Psychologists, which says physical safety options should be built in conjunction with support for mental health – there should be an aim to make a school not only look safer to an outsider, but feel safer for the students.

“To truly improve school safety, reasonable physical security such as locked doors, lighted hallways and visitor check-in systems must be combined with reasonable psychological safety efforts that promote a positive school climate,” the NASP reported. “These efforts include establishing trust among staff, students and families; and creating an environment where students feel empowered to report any safety concerns.”

Gun Safety Legislation

Since Sandy Hook, AASA has called on Congress to pass legislation reinstating the ban on assault weapons, banning large-capacity magazines, ending the “gun show” loophole and requiring thorough background checks for all gun purchases.

Ellerson Ng notes that AASA opposes any federal legislation focused on arming teachers, saying that it is a reactive and potentially dangerous policy proposal. Although AASA supports local school districts if they decide to fund firearms training for teachers, the group does not believe any federal funds should be allocated toward arming teachers.

The record of armed officers or civilians stopping school shootings also does not support the move to provide teachers with firearms: There was an armed officer at Columbine High School in 1999 and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 when the shootings started. Both were unable to stop the massacres.

Those advocating for arming teachers after the Stoneman Douglas shooting “conveyed a sense that with an armed teacher around, any shooter would quickly be shot and killed, ending the potential tragedy quickly and happily,” wrote John Donohue III in Scientific American. “The real world has not been so neat.”

More information about what AASA advocates in terms of school safety can be found in its position paper. The 2019 National Conference on Education — the most comprehensive professional learning and networking event for school superintendents and administrators — will be the place to learn more, connect and share experiences with other superintendents on this topic.