After Shooting, Tension Mounts Between Security Quick-Fixes and Long-Term Solutions
Since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, educational leaders around the country have reassessed their safety plans, sought to reassure anxious parents amid an uptick in copycat threats, and heard calls from policymakers to “harden schools” with more armed staff and physical security measures.
It’s sadly familiar turf for district and school leaders, who faced the same concerns after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, stirring calls for beefed up school security and debates over gun laws. They instituted more lockdown drills, rebuilt entrances to limit access, and reviewed safety procedures with law enforcement.
Five years later, widespread calls for quick-fix actions in response to Parkland might conflict with ongoing efforts to make schools safer.
“I think it would be difficult to find a public school in this country that hasn’t spent a lot of time and effort to strengthen the security of their building,” said Thomas Gentzel, the executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association.
While policymakers tend to introduce safety measures in the immediate aftermath of a mass school shooting—responding to fears about a statistically unlikely worst-case scenario—many school leaders say their work to improve safety, and to address a whole range of concerns, never ends.
Hard Measures vs. Soft
While it can be tempting to focus on costly visible measures, like adding more school police and installing metal detectors, some schools may achieve greater safety benefits in hiring an additional school counselor or launching new programs to support students with behavioral needs, school leaders say. Researchers point to threat-assessment programs—which schools use to evaluate and address student behavioral concerns—and school climate efforts as some of the most important ways to keep students safe.
There are other major considerations to weigh in making safety plans: How to spend limited resources. Protecting students’ civil rights. And ensuring that stepped-up safety won’t negatively affect students’ daily learning experiences.
The day after the Parkland shooting, in which a former student shot and killed 17 people, civil rights groups voiced concern about the safety policy proposals that would result.
“Unfortunately, too often after these kinds of tragedies, the response is to prioritize and further embed invasive security measures and increased law enforcement presence, surveillance and activity in schools throughout the country,” said a joint statement from the Alliance for Educational Justice and the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a coalition of student and civil rights groups. “The impulse to police school communities will not prevent further tragedies and will be counterproductive towards building safe, nurturing, and supportive learning environments.”
They cite the most recent federal data, which showed that 1.6 million students attended schools with a police officer but no school counselor in the 2013-14 school year. School police are too frequently involved in routine discipline issues that would be better addressed by school administrators, civil rights groups say, and black and Latino students are often disciplined at higher rates than their white peers.
While black students were 15.5 percent of U.S. enrollment in 2013-14, they made up 33.4 percent of school-based arrests and 25.8 percent of referrals to law enforcement, an Education Week Research Center analysis found. That may be because black students are more likely to attend schools with on-site police.
Policymakers who propose increased police presence at schools after shootings aren’t always mindful of the impacts that would have on daily experiences of students, particularly African-American and Latino students, said Chris Burbank, the vice president for strategic relationships at the Center for Policing Equity.
“The shooters are not frequently black males,” said Burbank, a former police chief in Salt Lake City. “But when we advocate more police in schools, who the police are stopping…are black males.”
But some critics of that point of view argue that racially disparate discipline rates can be by out-of-school factors, like how black students are more likely to live in low-income communities with higher rates of crime.
The National Association of School Resource Officers, which trains school police, says officers shouldn’t be involved in routine disciplinary issues. NASRO presses for schools to craft formal agreements with law enforcement agencies that carefully outline officers’ roles.
The Broward County district, which includes Parkland, had received national attention for creating such an agreement with its officers, partnering with the Center for Policing Equity to study the results. That agreement set up a discipline matrix that restricted the use of suspensions and school-based arrests for student misbehavior. The effort, launched in 2013, includes a diversionary program that steers students away from criminal referrals for non-violent misdemeanors.
School Police in Demand
Demand for school police training was high before the Parkland shooting, and that’s continued, said Mac Hardy, NASRO’s director of operations.
“We’re not only getting calls from police departments or school districts, we’re also getting calls from parents asking, ‘What is a school resource officer?’” he said.
Those calls come amid concerns that Stoneman Douglas High School, a multi-building campus with 3,300 students, has had only one on-site sheriff’s deputy.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said that the officer didn’t enter the building to confront the gunman. A lawyer for the deputy, who retired after Israel launched an investigation into his actions, said he thought the shots were outside the building.
But some policymakers said it’s too much to expect one officer to secure a campus of that size, even if he had reacted differently.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has called for $450 million to put police in every public school in the state, and ensure every school has at least one officer for every 1,000 students by 2018-19.
Similar proposals have taken shape in other states. And President Donald Trump has urged states to allow schools to arm teachers, a proposal broadly panned by educator groups, school safety experts, and NASRO.
Armed teachers are no replacement for properly trained school police who know how to coordinate with school administrators to address threats, Hardy said.
Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie supports more funding for school-law enforcement, but he also said the state should increase funding for mental-health programs and resources for students with emotional and behavioral issues.
Records obtained by the Washington Post show the shooting suspect, Nikolas Cruz, had a long disciplinary history with the district.
“Teachers said that by 8th grade he was lashing out physically—randomly bumping other students in the hallways, appearing to want to pick confrontations and fights, and at times breaking into profanity-laced tirades without any apparent trigger,” the Post reported. Cruz was moved to an alternative school before he gradually transitioned into Stoneman Douglas, where he was later removed for disciplinary issues, the Post said.
The district’s discipline policies have come under fire from some conservative media commentators who say they limited police discretion to intervene.
Runcie has refused to discuss the specifics of Cruz’s disciplinary history, citing federal privacy laws. At a news conference last week he called criticisms of the district’s program “extremely false and I think disrespectful.”
School safety discussions tend to fixate on the circumstances of the most recent event, said Kenneth Trump, a school safety consultant who has fielded dozens of calls from district leaders since the Parkland shooting.
Most educators weren’t in their current positions during the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., which prompted the development of research-based school safety strategies that still apply today, Trump said. Many of those strategies focus on helping students feel comfortable reporting concerns about classmates, he said.
“The number one way we find out about weapons in schools, still today as it was post-Columbine, is a kid comes forward and tells an adult that they trust,” said Trump, who is not related to the president.
Policymakers are often drawn to “shot in the arm solutions,” he said. But some of the funds for school police created after Newtown have run out, and one-time grants for equipment, like security cameras, don’t often account for ongoing maintenance costs needed to keep that equipment functioning.
After Parkland, schools should evaluate security, but they should resist “cookie cutter” plans that lean too heavily on physical security measures and don’t account for “invisible” security needs, like staff training, Trump said.
“The risk we face is those who follow the mantra ‘do something, do anything, and do it fast,’” he said.
Vol. 37, Issue 23, Pages 1, 8Published in Print: March 7, 2018, as School Districts Weight Security After Shooting