New school safety bills could make schools less safe for kids

BlogMar 13 2018

In an attempt to promote school safety in response to the Parkland, Florida school shooting, President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos have called for the passage of legislation and consideration of other measures largely focused on increasing security measures in schools. Legislation under consideration in the House and Senate—and in at least seven state legislatures—features measures intended to improve schools’ physical security: from arming teachers (in state bills), to increasing the number of school-based police, to installing more metal detectors and other scanning technologies in schools.

As experts devoted to understanding how school environments affect student success and well-being, we are concerned that these efforts could make schools less safe for children if they do not prioritize—or at least maintain—an emphasis on strategies actually shown to prevent school violence.

There is little evidence that the school security strategies supported in these bills will improve student safety. No rigorous evaluations examine, for example, how arming school personnel may impact students. Nor is there evidence that police in schools improve safety: A report commissioned by Congress after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting found that the little research available had mixed and inconclusive findings. The report also found that research failed to address whether police in schools actually deter school shootings. Finally, so-called “school safety technology” is not proven to improve safety. For example, only one of seven evaluations of the impact of metal detectors on student safety found a decrease in student self-reported weapon-carrying, and many studies showed that metal detectors negatively affected whether students felt safe at school.

The rapid spread of these untested strategies is especially concerning when they directly compete with current investments in broader prevention efforts and student supports, many of which have been shown to improve school safety and prevent violence. The Senate’s School Safety and Mental Health Improvement Act amends Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act to add physical security measures to an already extensive list of educational programs that must compete for the small amount of dedicated funding. Title IV already supports strategies to improve school climate by supporting student social and emotional well-being, decreasing bullying, reducing unwarranted suspensions, and improving student nutrition and physical activity—efforts associated both with less school violence and positive outcomes for students’ well-being.

And what if unintended consequences to these strategies harm students? There is reason to think that they might. Evaluations of “common sense” programs such as Scared Straight, which exposed students at risk for criminal behavior to the consequences of their behavior through prison tours, make it clear that strategies that seem logical can actually hurt kids. Evaluations found that participation in Scared Straight increases the likelihood that youth will commit criminal offenses in the future, underscoring the importance of evaluating our best intentions. With this example in mind, it is concerning that there is insufficient research to help school systems design active shooter drills in ways that will not inflict trauma on students or normalize violence.

For bill provisions that go beyond school security to address violence prevention, lawmakers have focused on identifying and treating children with mental illness. While such supports are critical, especially for youth exposed to violence and other trauma, focusing only on mental illness will not prevent violence. Mental illness alone is not a causal factor for violence and this focus furthers a damaging misconception that people with disabilities are to be feared, avoided, and excluded. Studies have shown that people with mental illness are more likely to become victims of violence than perpetrators.

To keep kids safe in school, policymakers should listen to national school safety experts who call for the creation of school climates that focus on prevention and address the full range of social, emotional, and behavioral risk factors that contribute to school violence. One promising approach supported by research involves a comprehensive assessment of and response to children who could represent potential threats. In this approach, teams of educators, health professionals, and law enforcement personnel come together to examine a child’s risk of engaging in violent behavior and, perhaps most importantly, refer the child to supports that will help. However, this approach, included in the House’s STOP School Violence Act, will only be successful if such supports are actually made available. If we’re to be successful in preventing violence in schools, schools and communities need resources that go beyond metal detectors and school police.