Schools are spending tens of millions of dollars this year to shore up security in the wake of two mass school shootings. But how do K-12 leaders know if they are spending their scarce funds in the right way? Are the measures they invest in going to make their schools safer? How will they know if what they’ve done is working?
Researchers who study school security worry school leaders can’t get good answers to these questions.
It can be difficult for them to sift through the research on school safety—which comes from academic fields as wide-ranging as criminal justice, psychology, and economics.
And highly charged debates about how to respond are often dominated by security companies with profit motives, law-enforcement experts who aren’t seasoned in the day-to-day concerns of working with students, and a fearful public who wants schools to “do something” after rampage-style shootings.
Those shootings—like those in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas—are statistically rare, especially compared to the safety issues schools deal with on a daily basis, such as bullying, fights, and theft.
It’s difficult to determine the effectiveness of measures meant to deter events that likely won’t occur anyway, said Jeremy Finn, a professor of education at the University of Buffalo.
“It’s not that security measures are never helpful, but there’s often no data to substantiate them,” he said. “How do you know when you’ve deterred a school shooting? It didn’t happen.”
So what research should schools rely on? Who should they listen to as they make safety decisions?
Sounding the Alarm
Finn and more than 20 researchers, advocates, and educators gathered at American University last month to discuss the state of school safety debates. They want to sound the alarm for education leaders about the limits of existing data and to help them use research to inform safety decisions. They also want to make K-12 leaders aware of the potential adverse effects of “hardening schools” by installing visible security measures like metal detectors, armed guards, and police officers.
Studies have found that such measures can change students’ perceptions of school and actually make some feel less safe. In addition, federal civil rights data show that schools often discipline black and Latino students at higher rates than their white and Asian peers, a concern some have traced back to zero-tolerance discipline policies begun after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.
After the Parkland shooting, which killed 17 people, lawmakers kicked into a familiar debate about safety that they’d had five years earlier, after 26 people died in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The Santa Fe High School shooting in May, in which 10 people died, added momentum.
State lawmakers had proposed 266 bills or resolutions on school safety since the Parkland shootings, according to a National Conference on State Legislatures database last updated in August. States enacted 31 of those bills and six resolutions in that period. Twelve bills provided new funding, often for physical-safety measures and school police.
At the federal level, Congress quickly passed the STOP School Violence Act, a measure championed by victims’ families from Newtown and Parkland that provides about $1 billion over 10 years. It underwrites physical measures, such as locks and metal detectors, and also provides funds for training staff, students, and law enforcement in identifying and responding to possible threats. Congress also provided $1.1 billion for Title IV block grants, which districts can use to pay for a diverse set of needs.
Great political pressure can be exerted on districts to accept safety grants that are narrowly targeted toward purposes like fortifying school entrances, district leaders told researchers at the October conference. Meanwhile, research is scant about the effectiveness of technology in keeping schools safe.
Districts do needs assessments to look for vulnerabilities, using a checklist that focuses on several factors, said Christina Conolly, the director of psychological services for the Montgomery County, Md., school district. Those factors include building design, such as making classroom doors and building entrances visible from offices; access, such as restricting doors that can be used by campus visitors; and “soft” security, such as student-counseling services.
Districts often turn to national associations and consultants for guidance, but it can be difficult to vet whether consultants are building their strategies around reliable research, educators told researchers.
A 2016 study by the Rand Corp. found that “despite growth in the school safety-technology sector, rigorous research about the effectiveness of these technologies is virtually nonexistent.”
“The field is in desperate need of more evidence on what works, and schools want this information presented to them in vetted, digestible ways to help them with procurement,” the report said.
Data are also limited about how widely adopted some technologies are, the variations in how schools use them, and students’ perceptions of those technologies, said Timothy Servoss, a psychology professor at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.
“Any time a local school decides to up security measures, there’s sort of an implicit celebration of that being a good thing,” often without evidence that the measures will make schools safer, Servoss said.
Researchers have sought answers using a federal grant program set up after Newtown to fund implementation and evaluation of programs that explore school safety concerns. But Congress redirected the entire $75 million for that research to the STOP School Violence Act, which has a narrower list of acceptable funding uses.
Conference participants say their discussions will help shape calls for more research about school security and to design resources to help schools navigate existing research.
“If you’re going to make a $1.6 million investment in security this year, what can you expect from it?” the University of Buffalo’s Finn said. “What do we know about it? What are the potential downsides?”
In the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, districts are grappling with how to keep students safe. Education Week looks at how a Texas district hopes to balance security and making sure students feel comfortable:
A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as Schools Need Data to Make Safety Decisions, Researchers Say