A Holistic Approach to School Safety
Is it possible and practical to balance metal detectors and mental detectors?
BY CHRISTINE A. EITH AND KENNETH S. TRUMP/School Administrator, April 2019

Chrissy Eith
Following last year’s tragic school shooting in Parkland, Fla., we saw school leaders come under immense pressure to strengthen safety measures. Anxious parents, understandably nervous and fearful of high ambiguity, demanded school safety changes.

In stressful times, the emotional climate reaches a feverish pitch as school system leaders and their governing boards rush to make a difference. Their reactions are to do something, do it fast and do it differently.

Not surprisingly, we saw questionable decisions in the past year where school leaders made choices — for instance, investing in bulletproof backpacks and whiteboards — that made people feel emotionally safe but did not make students safer.

Educators should pause to examine whether they are striving to make people feel safer or making schools safer. It’s a balancing act to create a safe school and preserve the learning environment. School safety discussions require a proactive approach to thorny problems and rigorous conversations with stakeholders, data analysis, research, a review of best practices and pragmatic implementation considerations.

Our insights and advice about best practice are based on more than 30 years’ experience. One of us (Trump, no relation to the president), has spent decades as a safety and security expert for districts during which time he has published three books and 450 articles. The other (Eith) spent nearly two decades researching school safety issues, including analysis of juvenile crime statistics for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Outside Influences
Special-interest groups such as gun control and gun rights advocates have developed their definitions of a safe school, while the security industry is actively lobbying to define safe schools based on stronger “target hardening” by increasing security hardware and equipment. While advocates, activists and others outside of K-12 education often are well-intentioned, many of their ideas are not always well-considered as to their potential for implementation in school contexts.

State legislators, state education agencies and homeland security officials also are creating school safety requirements to shape the definition of a safe school. Many of these definitions focus heavily on security hardware and products or tactics that do not always transfer easily to child-oriented settings. In fact, forensic analyses of school security lawsuits show that allegations tend to focus on the alleged failures of people, policies, procedures and systems, not failures of security technology and gadgets.

Some states are enacting requirements that all schools establish a safe schools committee to develop strategic and continuous school improvement plans, create increasingly complex crisis and emergency preparedness documents and/or ramp up physical security hardware and police staffing.

Educators must speak up and speak out about safety issues, to ensure the needs of kids and schools are met. A holistic safety plan needs to consider how school leaders can influence and educate their communities and legislators on best practices in school security.

Safe School Defined
As a first step, superintendents should develop a definition of school safety with community input because no universal definition exists to guide this work.

Frequently, school safety is defined by the absence of negative incidents (such as bullying or bomb threats) or focused on emergency preparedness. The latter is in line with the focus of Department of Homeland Security initiatives and moving toward the definition of schools as targets — where a school is one that is prepared for emergencies.

Changing the lens and focusing on safety as an environment that is free from fear, intimidation, violence and isolation can lead to an educational climate that fosters inclusion and acceptance for every child. Incorporating reasonable and balanced security and emergency preparedness measures can contribute to sustaining a secure climate in which to implement student behavioral and intervention supports.

Defining behavioral expectations that are clearly communicated, consistently enforced and fairly applied can help schools move in the direction of a definition of a safe school that is both measurable and prevention-focused rather than solely reactive. Having superintendents and principals motivate and engage faculty, staff, students, parents and the broader school community in implementing comprehensive school safety plans promotes ownership, engagement and sustained commitment.

Indicators of a safe school are many and may include:

» high academic standards,

» positive and respectful relationships,

» systematic conflict resolution strategies (e.g., peer mediation or meditation),

» a clean and orderly physical setting that enhances school pride,

» school personnel who listen to stakeholders,

» teachers and administrators who care about their students and have positive interactions and mutual respect for students,

» commitment to civility and positive classroom culture,

» behavioral and mental health intervention supports,

» opportunities and guidance for student before- and after-school programs and activities involving the whole community, and

» reasonable security and emergency preparedness measures.

This is not an exhaustive list. The key is for school leaders and their stakeholders to identify those indicators that define a safe school and then create a safety plan that is individualized, comprehensive and balanced.

District Initiatives
Following the attack in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018, the St. Tammany Parish Public Schools in Louisiana initiated a new approach that balanced adding a school resource officer with a mental health professional for student supports in each of the district’s 55 schools. In northeastern Ohio, educators in the Copley-Fairlawn City Schools worked with their first responders and outside consultants to revisit their emergency preparedness while contracting with outside mental health agencies to provide intensive interventions with high-risk students.

Meanwhile, the 1,700-student Girard, Ohio, City Schools, bordering Youngstown, Ohio, engaged school safety consultants to evaluate the district’s building security and emergency guidelines while providing professional learning opportunities on security and best practices in emergency preparedness to support staff, including food service, transportation and office personnel.

In Roanoke, Va., Superintendent Rita Bishop and her leadership team worked with school security and emergency preparedness experts to assess district-level safety programs and facilitate tabletop exercises for all secondary and elementary administrators, first responders and district support staff. Also, in Virginia’s 82,000-student Loudoun County Public Schools, Superintendent Eric Williams and his district staff re-evaluated Loudoun’s already-exemplary threat assessment program and strengthened its safety communications messaging with parents.

While each of these districts took somewhat different approaches, the common thread is that the leadership took a proactive stance to work with internal and external stake-holders to examine school safety definitions and priorities. They reinforced safety communications with parents. They identified components of a comprehensive plan that needed strengthening. In short, they took the lead in defining what safe schools are for their school community.

What’s Enough?
Grappling with the piles of research (or the paucity of it), the pitch of vendors and special-interest lobbyists and the sometimes-conflicting opinions of consultants on how to best keep students and staff safe is no simple task. A team of people with varied perspectives and areas of expertise to distill the facts and make rational decisions about school safety is recommended. How can you strike a balance between a safe school and a positive learning environment?

Research published in 2013 in the American Journal of Criminal Justice shows that a heavy focus on school security equipment can have an unintended consequence of increasing student fear and anxiety. At the same time, the student who is assaulted in the back hallway on the way to his restorative justice circle group will not benefit from the “softer side” of school safety interventions if he cannot safely get to the session.

School safety discussions should be balanced between mental detectors and metal detectors. A team should consider options that include communications capabilities, visitor management systems and single-entry points — as well as school counseling needs and violence prevention programs.

Much focus now is on protection from active shooters. But threat assessment is only one dimension of school safety. Building trusting relationships between students and adults is key. School leaders typically find out about a weapon or a plot in school from a student who comes forward and tells a trusted adult. When schools emphasized personal communication and relationships with students, the reporting improved and incidents declined.

Evaluating Threats
School shootings are low-probability but high-impact occurrences. While shootings are important threats to include in school safety planning, many other lower-impact but higher-probability threats to safety occur widely in schools.

A continuum of threats to school safety might begin with the disciplinary issues most school administrators deal with year-round and then progress in seriousness to bullying, fighting, noncustodial parent issues, bomb threats, weather and natural disasters, student or staff suicides or even an organized terror attack upon schools. School shootings must be viewed as an important threat, yet only one point on a broad continuum of potential threats.

If we view threats to school safety on a continuum, then it is appropriate to plan school safety prevention and preparedness measures on a continuum, as well. Yes, schools must prepare for school shootings, but they also must address the many other potential threats by having school climate and prevention programs, behavioral and mental health interventions, reasonable physical security measures, staff training exercises and participation in broader community preparedness planning.

School leaders should therefore recognize the continuum of threats to the safety of their schools and respond with a continuum of prevention and preparedness measures. This type of comprehensive and balanced approach to school safety is supported by decades of research and experience.

Research consistently shows that schools should take a comprehensive and balanced approach in designing their school safety programs. But it also shows that schools struggle in implementing and sustaining such programs over time.

The first step toward creating a meaningful and evidence-based school safety program is to define what a safe school is for your school community.

CHRISTINE EITH is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. Twitter: @christine_eith. KENNETH TRUMP is the president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland, Ohio.