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Federal Officials Plan School Safety Clearinghouse After Push From Parkland Parents

By Evie Blad — July 25, 2019 5 min read
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Federal agencies plan to launch a school safety clearinghouse in the fall, bringing together “best practices” for schools seeking to prevent and deter violence, including rare but traumatic school shootings that dominate news coverage of the subject.

The creation of the clearinghouse—included in recommendations from President Donald Trump’s federal school safety commission in December—has been championed by parents who lost their children in the February 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed and 17 others were injured.

But there are already existing collections of “best practices” on school safety, and there’s great debate among researchers, policymakers, and educators about what actually keeps schools safe. While state and federal policymakers often seek to fund visible security and “hardening measures,” many researchers advocate broader approaches that aim to prevent a span of safety concerns—from bullying to suicide to school shootings.

And school safety has historically been considered a local issue, with factors like school districts’ finances, the needs of special student populations, parents’ preferences, and political will driving decisions. Will a new collection of informational resources bring about any broad changes?

“I traveled the country and came to realize that in all of the 139,000 K-12 schools in this country, each principal has to become an expert in door locks, access control, cameras, etc,” Max Schachter, whose son Alex died in the Parkland shooting, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee Thursday. “It made no sense to me that each school had to reinvent the wheel. The idea that crystalized for me was the need to create National School Safety Best Practices at the federal level.”

Schachter was among witnesses at the hearing, which was attended by several other family members of Parkland school shooting victims. While those families have a variety of views on issues like gun laws, they’ve sought to band together to promote school safety policies they agree upon.

After that shooting, a state task force chaired by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri held hours of hearings to determine what went wrong that day and what the school could have done differently. It identified failings on the part of local and federal law enforcement, mental health providers, and other entities. And it singled out problems with the Broward County school district’s safety procedures. The district didn’t have a policy mandating active shooter drills until after the shooting, for example, and some Florida districts still don’t, Gualtieri told senators at the hearing.

“The lack of compliance with the most basic tenets is the most shocking and appalling thing we uncovered,” Gualtieri said.

But it can be difficult to define what those “basic tenets” are. A few examples of disagreement in the field:

  • Florida has passed a law since the 2018 shooting that allows some teachers to be armed and requires an armed adult on each school campus, but many other states have rejected such measures, some after fierce debates.
  • Some states have adopted mandates that schools teach students and teachers to “run, hide, fight,” even drilling them in throwing objects like books and staplers to deter would-be shooters. But some school safety consultants warn that such training is unproven and may even be dangerous in the event of a real shooting. (Read more about the toll of realistic drills on educators here.)
  • A school in Indiana, dubbed the “safest school in America,” is equipped with fog machines that fill hallways to confuse shooters, cameras that feed automatically to law enforcement in crisis events, and panic buttons. Schachter cited the school as a good example Thursday, but school safety researchers have said that its equipment was provided free by a security vendor and that it would be cost-prohibitive for other schools to adopt such an approach.
  • Researchers also question the effectiveness of some commonly adopted physical security measures in schools, like metal detectors. And they’ve raised concerns about negative effects, like school police engaging in student discipline that would be better handled by administrators.

“We have to be very careful when we recommend these things, that we consider these unintended consequences,” Deborah Temkin, a senior program director for education at Child Trends International, a research organization, told the Senate committee.

With those factors as a backdrop, the officials responsible for determining what to include in the clearinghouse have a tall task.

The Department of Homeland Security referred questions about the school safety clearinghouse to the U.S. Secret Service, where a spokesperson said the agency planned a July 30 meeting with educators, law enforcement personnel, and representatives from other agencies to begin discussing what would be included in the resource, which will be launched in November. The organizations don’t have a set meeting schedule, but they plan to invite input from researchers in the future, the spokesperson said.

Temkin told the committee that there are already several collections of resources on school safety practices, including the National Center of Safe Supportive Learning Environments and the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center.

And it’s not always a lack of knowledge that holds schools back. Sometimes it’s a lack of resources. Threat prevention teams, included in federal and state recommendations after the Florida shooting, rely on student support staff like counselors and school psychologists, and most states fall well short of the recommended student-to-staff ratios in these areas.

Schachter would like to see more than recommendations. He would like prioritized lists of safety practices that could be used to create a rating system for schools, and he would like to require implementation of those practices for schools receiving federal school safety grant money.

Broward County, for example, installed sophisticated camera systems before it implemented some more fundamental safety policies, like adopting cost-free safety protocols, Schachter said.

“Schools should not be implementing a tier-four strategy like analytic cameras until they’ve done the basics,” he said.

Photo: Parents of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting victims April Schentrup, left, and Max Schachter, right, listen during the presentation of the Broward League of Cities report on school safety on June 4, 2018 at Parkland City Hall in Parkland, Fla. --Joe Cavaretta/Sun Sentinel/TNS