School Climate & Safety

A Difficult Year for School Safety: 6 Big Themes

By Evie Blad — December 22, 2022 5 min read
A woman holds a young girl's hand as they walk past piles of flowers stacked in front of Robb Elementary School.
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To many, the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, was the most significant education story of the year.

A former student there killed 19 children and two adults in conjoining classrooms while police fumbled their response.

And, like mass school shootings in years past, the devastation spurred debates and another round of laws and policies about how to keep students safe. Those actions were also fueled by worries about violence more generally—including mass shootings in such locations as grocery stores and nightclubs—and growing concern about student mental health.

Here are six of Education Week’s most-read school safety stories of 2022.

1. Failures in Uvalde showed schools’ vulnerabilities

Rachel Martinez carries her son and a protest sign as she attends a city council meeting, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. A Texas lawmaker says surveillance video from the school hallway at Robb Elementary School where police waited as a gunman opened fire in a fourth-grade classroom will be shown this weekend to residents of Uvalde.

Although 376 law-enforcement officers responded to Robb Elementary School—some carrying ballistic shields and other tactical gear—it took 76 minutes for them to breach the adjoining classrooms where the gunman attacked, a preliminary investigation by the state legislature found in July.

While that report largely focused on officers’ actions, some of its findings also offered cautions for schools around the country, Education Week reported.

For example, frequent campus lockdowns related to community incidents may have “contributed to a diminished sense of vigilance about responding to security alerts” in Uvalde schools, the investigation found.

Dated facilities and inconsistent safety protocols were also listed as concerns.

2. A high number of school shootings

By October, Education Week counted more school shootings that injured or killed people than it had in any single calendar year since it began tracking incidents in 2018.

Education Week’s school shooting tracker counts incidents in which at least one person, other than the individual firing the weapon, is injured by gunfire on school property when school is in session or during a school-sponsored event.

Most shootings included in the tracker are not the mass attacks that are typically the focus of school safety debates. School-sponsored events could include evening activities, like football games, and the injured persons may or may not be students.

In October, Education Week covered the challenge of keeping students, athletes, and spectators safe at sporting events.

3. A surge in hoax ‘swatting’ calls frightened communities and challenged administrators

A family shares a tearful reunion following a chaotic scene outside of Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio, after the school went into lockdown on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. Alarmed parents laid siege to the Texas high school Tuesday after a classroom shooting report that ultimately proved to be false.

A string of false shooting reports disrupted schools across the country at the start of the school year, Education Week reported in September. The calls drew renewed attention to school safety and communication protocols and prompted the FBI and local law-enforcement officials to investigate whether the incidents were connected.

Dozens of schools went into lockdown in recent months after local police received false calls about shootings in progress in their buildings. The FBI has labeled the practice “swatting,” a term that refers to filing a false report with the aim of stoking chaos and provoking a large law-enforcement response.

Students, teachers, and administrators often didn’t know immediately whether the danger was real, causing them fear and anguish.

A school safety expert and administrators offered tips for easing anxiety and disruption during lockdowns.

4. Congress passed its first major gun bill in decades, including measures for schools

President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in June—the first major gun legislation Congress has passed in three decades.

The law, drafted in response to the Uvalde shooting, creates an “enhanced review process” for gun buyers 21 or younger. It also provides funding to encourage states to enact “red-flag laws,” which allow judges to issue extreme risk-protection orders that limit a person’s access to firearms if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.

The measure also provides significant funding for school-based mental health, including $1 billion to build the pipeline of new school psychologists, counselors, and social workers. And it seeks to make it easier for schools to bill Medicaid for student treatments, including mental health services.

5. Educators favor heightened gun restrictions over ‘hardening schools’

When asked what should be included in a school safety law, respondents to a national survey of educators conducted in June by the EdWeek Research Center were most likely to support heightened restrictions on gun sales and more funding for student mental health care.

Those measures won much stronger support from respondents than “hardening schools” with added security features, arming school staff, or increasing funding for school police.

Education Week spoke with educators about their school safety priorities in June, as Congress debated the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

6. Buffalo gunman’s record demonstrates the difficulty schools face in recognizing and responding to warning signs of violence

A Buffalo police officer talks to children at the scene of Saturday's shooting at a supermarket on Sunday, May 15, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. A white 18-year-old wearing military gear and livestreaming with a helmet camera opened fire with a rifle at the supermarket, killing and wounding people in what authorities described as “racially motivated violent extremism.”

After a May 14 shooting at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store, police revealed that educators had referred the shooting suspect, a former student, to law enforcement last year after he made a general threat. But he was still able to purchase guns and carefully plot his attack.

It can be extremely complicated for teachers and administrators to identify and respond to concerns of violence and student threats, especially when those threats are not specific, experts on school safety and mass shootings told Education Week in May.

“It’s really an unfortunate position that we’ve put schools in,” said Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University, speaking after the Buffalo shooting. “I’ve interviewed principals who say, ‘I make the call [about how to respond to concerning student behavior] and then I lay in bed at night and wonder if it’s the right one.’”

The conversation comes as more and more schools adopt threat-assessment strategies, which are designed to help educators recognize and respond to students’ needs for additional support and safety measures.

But researchers told Education Week that even two trained law-enforcement officers may interpret student behavior differently. While some may see a violent drawing as a warning sign of violence, others may see it as normal behavior. And that same subjectivity can make it difficult for educators to recognize students’ cries for help, they say.

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