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Are School Safety Measures Making Our Schools Less Safe?

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An article by Libby Nelson over at Vox got my attention. Here's how it starts:

Schools are now treating mass shootings like tornadoes and earthquakes—disasters beyond their control that students must be prepared for at all costs. A new survey from the Education Department found that 70 percent of schools practice school shooting drills, up from 53 percent in 2008. They're most common at suburban schools, although they're generally widespread: 75 percent of suburban schools held a shooting drill in 2013.

She adds, in a bit of an understatement, that "they may be doing more harm than good." I'll say. Reading this reminded me of the time I wanted to chaperone my daughter's field trip to Harper's Ferry but couldn't because my state-mandated clearances were out of date. I don't blame her school for enforcing the rule, but this wasn't the first time I had to stop and think about the consequences of turning our schools into walled compounds where access is carefully restricted to those willing to absorb the cost of demonstrating that they have never run afoul of the law. It's one thing to not break the law; it's another to have to prove it all the time. These kinds of things can erode citizens' sense of trust in each other, and in the institutions of society that we supposedly built together for the good of everyone.

I'm also concerned about the impact school security policies have on the students we are supposedly putting them in place to protect, which is what Nelson's story at Vox got me thinking about. Life can be difficult enough to wade through, and, yet, we can't seem to resist piling more on top of it. How does two weeks of non-stop high stakes testing following several weeks of test-prep sound? How about if we throw in an active shooter drill for good measure? And then spend "health" class reciting all the unhealthy things that will happen to you if you ever use drugs or have sex? At some point, our collective paranoia is bound to have an impact on the way our children see the world. We shouldn't be surprised if they grow up to be mistrustful of each other and mistrustful of social institutions too.

But let's back up for a second. Where did this obsession with active shooter drills and clearances come from? The answers, on the surface, are obvious. School shootings and child molestation cases seem to be alarmingly common. I still remember, as a student teacher, watching the news at home on the afternoon of the Columbine massacre, and barely being able to contain my anger and sadness. When the Sandy Hook massacre happened, I was even more profoundly moved; by then, I had worked in schools for almost fifteen years and had four children of my own. It was impossible for me, as a parent, to not see the photos of the victims at Sandy Hook and think immediately of my own children. It was also impossible not to contemplate the immense pain and anger and empty sadness that the parents of those children must have felt, and must continue feeling, after this senseless violence took their children out of their lives. Needless to say, it's also hard for me to imagine how anyone can be made aware of what Jerry Sandusky was convicted of doing—his case was the catalyst for new laws requiring pretty much everyone to complete a background check before coming near a school here in Pennsylvania—and not be outraged by it.

The first response any decent person has to have to events like these is: let's do everything we can to make sure this doesn't ever happen again. That's more than understandable. Unfortunately, the reactionary nature of our political process often winds up undermining the careful and sustained work that must be done to actually solve the problems we need to solve. Instead of taking the time to deliberate carefully about what causes violence and abuse in schools (which, as Nelson points out, is increasingly uncommon—in spite of what we may have heard), legislators pass laws that may have the unintended consequence of making our schools less safe.

How could that be, you ask? What could be the harm in requiring all adults to complete a simple background check before entering schools? Well, the first question we have to ask in response is: what reason do we have to believe that background checks actually make children safer? This is not the same thing as asking a person who wants to purchase a gun to complete a background check first; we're asking law-abiding citizens, the vast majority of whom have never committed an offense that should be of concern, and most of whom either have children in schools or are licensed to teach them, to pay to provide proof of it to school officials. They're not buying weapons; they are attempting to be involved in their children's schools. No, not every parent is a good parent, and, yes, it's reasonable to ask teachers to complete background checks periodically (every three years seems excessive) as a condition of licensure. But even if we do it prudently, asking for all this information is going to have an impact on how people see their schools. It sows seeds of distrust, and may—intentionally or not—send the message that we have an immediate threat to be afraid of when, in actuality, we probably don't.

One likely consequence of throwing these obstacles in the way of parents and other adults is that they won't enter schools in the first place. Parents will stay away from their children's classrooms. People thinking about teaching will wonder if it's worth it to commit to having their actions put under constant surveillance of the FBI and other official agencies. The legacy of prudish scrutiny of the lifestyles schoolteachers is making yet another strong comeback, and we should be especially worried about the chilling effect these laws may have on people who have never even done anything wrong. That includes parents who may live on the margins of society and have every reason to be concerned about what a background check may reveal, yet also have every right to be involved in the education of their children. It would make sense to have more adults in a school building, not fewer, especially in the event of a crisis. Onerous clearance laws make that less likely.

What this boils down to, as usual, is asking schools and school personnel to take responsibility for the failure of others in the political process to do what they can to protect children. The larger policy problems that lead to school violence can and should be addressed in legislatures and courts, not in schools. Gun safety measures should be a no-brainer, but instead we have states passing legislation to make it even easier for adults to have firearms on school campuses, which, in turn, places even more responsibility on school personnel to figure out how to deal with it. It seems that the logical thing to do would be to restrict gun access, especially at schools, rather than waste precious resources on managing what might happen if they fall into the wrong hands, but many states are moving in the opposite direction. 

Most disturbing of all is how a new market always seems to spring up to stoke our fears whenever something terrible happens near schools and children: Nelson reports that companies are now marketing bullet-proof whiteboards and barricades for classroom doors. One assistant principal in Alabama even encouraged students to bring canned goods to school to use as weapons in the event of a crisis, according to Nelson. We've entered theater of the absurd territory with that one. To what extent is the fear that we have of school violence and abuse stoked by an emerging "security" industry that sees dollar signs in the fearful eyes of parents? Make no mistake about it: school districts are on the hook for these expenditures, and even if they get swiftly swept under the rug as a necessary cost of doing business that doesn't mean they really are. We can be prudent without going overboard. 

No one wants to put children in harm's way, but we should be aware of the consequences of putting expensive band-aids on open wounds that deserve much more attention. Fear tends to confer political advantages on those elected officials most willing to exploit it, but not much, if anything, that they do has ever proven to make our kids safer. It may seem counterintuitive, but it seems at least possible that the way to make our schools safer is to make them more open, and to signal, by doing so, our commitment to nurturing the emotional and psychological health of children in addition to their physical well being. Is it any wonder that kids as young as two are being diagnosed with depression? Maybe we should ask ourselves how our school safety policies might be contributing to this phenomenon, instead of helping treat it. 

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