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School Safety Is a $2.7 Billion Market. How Do Schools Know if They're Spending Effectively?

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By Kelson Goldfine, the marketing and external-relations coordinator at YouthTruth

When I was a high school junior, a series of anonymous bomb threats were made at my school. I didn't take them very seriously—usually, they meant a welcome early dismissal.

Looking back, I wish my peers and I had been more appreciative. After all, we only saw threats. Since the massacre at Columbine High School 20 years ago, more than 226,000 students have experienced gun violence at school.

Keeping students safe from gun violence is a very worthy goal—one I'm personally invested in. (My parents both still teach in my home district, and I've only ever worked in schools or education advocacy.) But how do we know new lockdown drills like "ALICE," 300-pound ballistic white boards ($2,900), and bullet-proof doors ($4,000) are having an impact?

Spurred on by last year's tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., law-enforcement experts, security companies with profit-driven motives, and lawmakers charged into action. States poured $900 million into the cause, and school security bloomed into a $2.7 billion for-profit market. There is a justified outcry for more research to accompany the (expensive) fire burning beneath school security spending, yet many district leaders are plowing forward because of community pressure, legislation, or fear.

While the call for better data is a good one, it's also important to think about what kinds of data we're using to design our interventions. In addition to lives saved and perpetrators caught, what do we know about how school safety technology and drills influence student learning? Science has taught us about how things like "neuroplasticity" (the brain's ability to flex and adapt its activities to new situations) and the amygdala (the center of our "fight-or-flight" responses to stress and emotion) impact student learning and academic outcomes. If students don't feel safe, they can't learn to their fullest potential.

The nonprofit that I work for, YouthTruth, a San Francisco-based national nonprofit that harnesses student perceptions to help educators accelerate improvements, recently released a report analyzing responses from nearly 35,000 students about their experiences with school climate and safety. The data were gathered through YouthTruth's anonymous school experience survey, administered in partnership with school districts and charter-management organizations across eight states. We wanted to know: What can students tell us about school safety? How safe do students really feel at school?

Here are some things we learned:

  • Just over half of students feel safe at school. Fifty-nine percent of students feel safe at school generally. More specifically, 54 percent feel safe in hallways, restrooms, and locker rooms. Similarly, 55 percent say they feel safe on school property outside the school building.
  • Bullying and peer-on-peer harassment remain common. Only 66 percent of students report that adults at their school try to stop bullying and harassment, and a recent report shows bullying is on the rise.
  • One in 3 students report that they must be ready to fight to defend themselves at school. The data show that middle school students are more likely than high school students to observe physical fighting and feel that they must be ready to fight to defend themselves.
  • Black or African-American students are more likely than white students to feel that they must be ready to fight to defend themselves. Forty-one percent of black or African-American students indicated they feel they must be ready to protect themselves at school, compared with only 21 percent of white students.

If we're going to spend millions of dollars on making students safer, we should be checking in with students to see whether or not they feel safe on any given average school day—and not just from gun violence. (The odds of students experiencing bullying are 1 in 3, compared with students' 1 in 614,000,000 chances of witnessing gun violence.)

Feedback from students can teach us a lot as we learn more about what can be done to stop gun violence on school campuses. When interviewed, half of school personnel who had witnessed a shooting said that nothing would have changed the outcome. The other half said that deeper relationships between students and staff might have helped.

If students don't feel safe enough to learn, as educators, we need to know. It's not enough to make decisions based on whether schools look safe to adults. To measure how meaningful our safety investments are, we should be asking those we're intending to keep safe: the students themselves.

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