When asked what should be included in a school safety law, respondents to a national survey of educators by the EdWeek Research Center were most likely to support heightened restrictions on gun sales and more funding for student mental health care.
Those elements echo key parts of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a gun bill that passed Congress Friday.
Action on guns and support for mental health won much stronger support from respondents than “hardening schools” with added security features, arming school staff, or increasing funding for school police.
The EdWeek Research Center surveyed 875 teachers, principals, and district administrators June 8-14, just weeks after 19 students and two educators died in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Such mass fatality events, though less common than smaller acts of community violence, often spark fresh waves of conversations about school safety. The Uvalde killings—along with other mass shootings in places like a Buffalo grocery store—have also fueled conversations about state and federal gun laws.
Educators saw similar discussions, and accompanying changes to state and federal laws and district policy, after a 2012 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and 2018 shootings at high schools in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas.
“When you sit in this seat as superintendent, you cannot stay static,” said Melissa Moore, superintendent of the El Segundo, Calif., district. “You have to be constantly looking to see how you can improve.”
What can lawmakers do to make schools safer?
The EdWeek Research Center asked survey respondents what “should be included in any school safety law,” asking them to select from a list of 12 items related to guns, school safety, and mental health. The top three responses, representing strong majorities, had to do with guns.
Seventy-six percent of respondents said school safety legislation should include “red flag laws” that allow judges to suspend a person’s access to guns if they are deemed a threat.
Seventy-five percent of respondents called for closing loopholes in background checks for firearms purchases. Seventy-three percent said lawmakers should raise the minimum age to purchase an “assault-style” weapon like an AR-15 to age 21.
Following closely behind in priority, 72 percent said any school safety law should “fund additional mental health resources.”
The responses came as a bipartisan group of senators negotiated the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. If President Joe Biden signs the bill into law, as he has indicated he will, it would boost funding for school mental health and make it easier for schools to bill Medicaid for student services, including mental health support.
On guns, the bill would introduce enhanced background checks for gun buyers under 21, provide federal support for state red flag laws, restrict gun purchases for people convicted of domestic violence, and introduce several measures aimed at reducing gun trafficking.
“I would argue it will save thousands of lives,” said Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who led negotiations on the package.
The least popular options included in the EdWeek survey were arming school staff, which was supported by 18 percent of respondents, and banning the possession of handguns, supported by 27 percent of respondents.
Fifty-six percent of respondents said a school safety law should “improve or harden building security,” a common focus of Republican lawmakers after school shootings. School hardening measures include adding technology like security cameras and metal detectors to buildings or staffing schools with more armed personnel.
What can educators do to make schools safer?
Teachers and administrators told Education Week that school safety includes human elements, like making students feel supported and welcome, and that efforts should focus on overall well-being, rather than rarer mass casualty events.
“What tends to happen after [school shootings] is we embrace a really narrow version of school safety: How can we keep kids from getting shot to death in school,” said Robert Beretta, a principal of a K-8 school in Philadelphia. “But it’s much more complex than that.”
Promoting a sense of safety in schools means adequately funding programs, supporting educators to build relationships with students, and supporting children’s mental health, he said.
The EdWeek Research Center asked about factors schools can directly control to make students safer, providing respondents with a list of 23 options that included measures related to physical security, student well-being, and staff protocols.
The most popular option was “requiring external doors to be locked while school is in session,” supported by 76 percent of respondents. But the most recent federal data show 97 percent of schools already limit access to their buildings during school hours.
Still, locks can malfunction, and school staff can violate policies on locked doors by doing things like briefly propping them open to retrieve something from a car, administrators told Education Week.
“At the end of the day, school safety is really reliant on each individual person living within a school safety protocol,” said Beretta, the Philadelphia principal. “Because [shootings] are not happening every day, we can sort of get lulled into complacency.”
The COVID-19 pandemic created another wrinkle for school safety protocols, said Moore, the California superintendent.
To increase air circulation and reduce the risk of virus transmission, local health officials recommended leaving doors and windows open, counter to other school safety policies, she said. And, after extended interruptions to in-person learning, teachers needed a refresher on some policies.
“I know some of our teachers are going to be confused and say, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ Which poison pill do you pick?” Moore said.
Little support for arming teachers
Some policies floated after the Parkland shooting saw less support from survey respondents. Asked if arming “a select group of teachers” would make schools safer, 70 percent said no.
The bill under consideration in Congress would notably prohibit the use of federal education funding “to train or equip any person with dangerous weapons in schools.”
Respondents who identified as Republicans or who personally own guns were more likely to support arming educators.
How safe do educators feel after the Uvalde school school shooting?
The survey asked respondents how safe they feel in their school or district compared to five years ago. Forty-one percent of respondents said they feel “somewhat less safe” or “much less safe.”
In an open-response question, respondents said they feel less safe because their schools are inadequately staffed, because of lapses in practice during COVID-19 interruptions, and because student misbehavior is worse in recent years.
Respondents who feel safer said their schools have adopted new safety measures, like automatic locking doors, in the last five years, provided professional development for teachers on school safety and mental health, and updated their district safety plans.
Promoting a sense of safety at school
School safety isn’t about looking for one cure-all solution, Moore said. Rather, administrators need to constantly evaluate to make sure practices are working and facilities are maintained.
After the Parkland shooting, El Segundo schools committed about $6 million from a voter-approved bond measure on safety upgrades, including fencing around campuses. Like Parkland, many schools in the warm California district require students to walk between buildings to get to class, a potential point of vulnerability.
“This at least gives some degree of peace of mind,” Moore said of the upgrades.
After the Uvalde shooting, she wrote to parents to remind them of the district’s safety practices, including systems that allow students to report possible threats.
Moore said she’s in constant contact with her community’s police chief. After Uvalde, she plans to pay a safety consultant about $30,000 to review building plans and do training with staff.
But beyond factors she can control, Moore supports measures like red flag laws to keep potentially unsafe people from accessing weapons in the first place.
“If we can get guns out of the hands of people who have some sort of mental health crises going on, who could harm themselves or others, then that definitely needs to be part of the conversation,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2022 edition of Education Week as What Would Make Schools Safer? Here’s What Educators Say