Four in 10 educators feel less safe in their schools now than they did five years ago, according to a new survey by the EdWeek Research Center. School shootings factor heavily into their fears, but so does a swirl of other dynamics, from an angry political climate to a rise in student and parent aggression.
The survey of 875 district and school leaders and teachers, administered online the second week of June, only a few weeks after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, unearthed a complex picture of their sense of safety. While 40 percent said they felt less safe than five years ago, 38 percent said their sense of safety hadn’t changed in that period. Two in 10 said they felt safer.
At the same time, in another question, 6 in 10 teachers and administrators said that fear of a “purposeful mass homicide” at their schools—by an outsider or a student—was a key factor in their worries about safety.
Suzanne Carter has taught high school English in Rancho Cucamonga, a foothills town an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles, for 25 years. She worries about a school shooting on her campus because there are “so many access points” with too few security guards to monitor them. But she’s increasingly fearful of her own students.
When the teenagers returned for fully in-person instruction this year, they “created a new threat” with misbehavior so intense that it seemed they’d “almost lost their humanness,” Carter said. One student who’d been in scuffles last year drew blood this year by kicking another student in the head with his heavy boots, she said.
In her own classroom, two students got into a physical altercation, but neither was removed from her classroom, in part due to state rules requiring schools to explore “other means of correction” for disruptive students, she said. “I just worry, is this the day they turn it on me?” Carter said.
Carter’s experience echoes through the EdWeek survey. Educators who said they felt less safe than five years ago cited a range of reasons: too few school resource officers, severe behavior issues among students, anti-mask or anti-vaccine sentiment, lax school discipline policies, angry parents. They also cited a general sense of unsafety, with one respondent noting: “The world feels less stable.”
Teachers and administrators who reported feeling safer in school than five years ago cited a range of reasons, too: stepped-up safety training for staff members, the presence of school-resource or law enforcement officers, locked or monitored doors, secured perimeters, video cameras, and, in some cases, armed staff members.
Glenn Bryant, the principal of Ardmore High School, in a small Alabama town near the Tennessee state line, said he feels safe in his school because of its stepped-up security measures. His building has a full-time school-resource officer. Every door now requires staffers to scan their ID cards to enter, and every room has a security box on the wall that can trigger sirens and flashing blue lights with the touch of a fingertip. The boxes also contain a baton and pepper spray “for close-up defense,” he said.
“I spent 22 years as a Navy reservist and a year in Iraq,” Bryant said. “There have been times in my life I’ve been scared. But never in school.”
Bryant also swears by the careful attention to relationships in his building. With only 125 students per grade in his junior/senior high school, adults can cultivate connections that pay off when it comes to security. Recently, someone in the school community tipped Bryant and his team that a student had posted a photo of himself with a gun on social media. A search of his car found the loaded pistol in the glove compartment.
The EdWeek survey results show that even though many educators’ sense of safety has declined, mass shootings are grabbing the headlines, and reports of student aggression are soaring, only a small proportion actually say they feel unsafe in their schools.
When they were asked for a right-now snapshot—how safe do you typically feel in your schools?—only 15 percent of teachers and administrators said they felt unsafe. Among the other 85 percent, half said they were “very” safe and half said they were “somewhat” safe.
Ron Astor, who studies the dynamics of school violence as a professor of social welfare at the University of California-Los Angeles, said research on the subject is rife with such paradoxes. Since violent crime against students at school has been declining for 25 years, Astor said he’d expect increases in the proportions of people who report feeling safe at school, but that isn’t the case.
In research on school safety, educators often report feeling safe in their own schools, he said, which could explain the more upbeat findings in the EdWeek survey. But safety is highly subjective, and can be shaped by events in the larger world, and that could explain the darker findings in the survey, Astor said.
Most educators report worry about mass homicides
Six in 10 respondents to the EdWeek survey cited large-scale school shootings as a key safety concern. When asked what sources of potential violence worried them most, 63 percent chose “mass homicide” by outsiders or students.
Nineteen percent said they worried about violence stemming from student-on-student conflict, and 11 percent said they feared conflict between students and outsiders. Purposeful mass homicide by a current or former employee was cited as a fear by only 2 percent of respondents.
School shootings, especially like the attack in Uvalde, are statistically rare. But the powerful, visceral impact of shooting rampages deeply shapes society’s views and drives the debates and legislative responses that follow.
Asked specifically about gun violence, however, 55 percent of the survey respondents said schools are safe from that threat. Two thirds said their schools have safety measures in place to prevent a school shooting, and 6 in 10 said their schools—and law enforcement—could stop a school shooting before anyone is hurt.
That’s not how Stephanie Derby feels. She teaches middle school English in a small town in southeastern Minnesota, but she worries about strangers having easy access to her pre-K-12 building. Staff members, working in “a town where everyone knows everyone,” often prop open the school’s doors. There are no school-resource or law enforcement officers around. She is increasingly uneasy when her students see reports of faraway school shootings on the news, and ask her if their school is safe.
She’s also worried for her own personal safety. At a parent-teacher conference in November, a student picked up a desk and threw it at her, with both parents present. At 52, she’s starting to wonder if she should retire earlier than she’d planned. “Every day I mull it over,” Derby said.
In the small town of Jonesville, La., Benny Vault Jr., worries less that one of his students will get shot at school than that they’ll be plucked off the campus by a stranger. A longtime football coach and physical education teacher at Block High School, Vault said his community has been fighting against human trafficking, and his school doesn’t feel secure enough in the face of that danger.
“We have an open campus, no fencing,” he said. “Someone could just walk right in off the street.”
Threads of danger, fusing into uneasiness
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Adrienne Khan is concerned about a possible school shooting; her elementary school is in the same county where 14 students died in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in 2018. But she’s also worried about the adult visitors who flow through the building daily.
“It’s great that the gates and the doors are locked, and we have security guards, but the fact of the matter is, they let [visitors] through the doors, and you’re carrying a big bag, and how do I know what’s in the bag?” said Khan, who teaches 4th grade at Bayview Elementary. “I just have a level of distrust of everybody now.”
Some of that distrust is fueled by the media drumbeat of mass shootings. Some is bred by incidents with angry parents. Not long ago, school officials had to call police when a parent and a grandparent came to blows outside the school over a child’s pickup arrangements, Khan said. A recent meeting she attended over a child’s individualized education plan had to be quickly disbanded when one of the parents started screaming at staff members, she said.
Florida’s new laws restricting what can be taught in the classroom about gender and sexuality have also woven anxiety into her days, Khan said. “I’m always on edge about what I can teach, and not sure who’s going to come in and yell at me,” she said.
Derby, the Minnesota teacher, said she never used to keep her classroom doors locked. But after the Uvalde shooting, “that changed.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2022 edition of Education Week as ‘The World Feels Less Stable’: Educators’ Sense of School Safety Right Now