After school shootings, state school safety policy making focuses more on preparation than prevention

February 12, 2020

Ahead of the second anniversary of the Parkland, FL school shooting, a new analysis of statutes and regulations passed since 1999 finds that, following high-profile incidents of school shootings, state policies have primarily focused on preparing for, not preventing, school shootings. The evolution of state school safety laws since the Columbine school shooting, produced by Child Trends and EMT Associates, Inc. examines when states added laws addressing seven topics related to school practices covered in the 2018 Federal School Safety Commission report.

“Since Columbine in 1999, school shootings have served as a catalyst for state policymakers to enact new laws in an attempt to keep schools safe,” said Deborah Temkin, an expert on school health and safety at Child Trends. “Unfortunately, school safety policy has largely focused on efforts to prepare for a school shooting, rather than creating the school environments and providing the needed supports to prevent one from occurring.”

The laws examined in the report address seven topics included in the FSCC report: character development and culture of connectedness, cyberbullying, mental health and counseling, anonymous reporting systems and threat assessments, school personnel training, school building security, and active shooter preparedness. States began enacting laws on these topics well before the release of the FSCC report in 2018, with most laws addressing school hardening, threat assessments, security assessments, and active shooter preparation passed in the wake of the 1999 Columbine, 2005 Red Lake, 2007 Virginia Tech, 2012 Sandy Hook, and 2018 Parkland school shootings.

Although most states also have laws that address more preventative measures such as school climate (40 states) and social and emotional learning or character development (37 states), the timing of the adoption of these laws was generally not tied to school shooting events.

“The recommendations made by the Federal School Safety Commission are strategies that have already been in place in many states,” said Victoria Stuart-Cassel, executive director of EMT Associates and coauthor of the report. “We simply do not know whether these strategies are effective at addressing school violence, and experts and educators are increasingly concerned that preparation-focused policies might be exacerbating fear among students and driving inequities for students of color and students with disabilities.”

The authors recommend that state and federal leaders ground school safety efforts in broader approaches that support students’ academic, physical, emotional, and social well-being. Further, more work is needed to understand how school safety policies are implemented in schools, as well as their effectiveness at addressing school violence.