Ivan Picazo remembers the open campus of his own Southern California high school 30 years ago. Students often headed off school grounds for lunch, and “people with business on campus would go to the school office, identify themselves, and go on their way. It’s not like that now,” says Picazo, a sergeant of the San Diego Unified School District Police Department.

The 130,000-student district, the second largest in California, currently uses some 1,600 surveillance cameras and has plans to expand the use of perimeter fencing and gates, controlled entry points, and an electronic keycard access system to each of its approximately 200 campuses.

Such features are part of San Diego Unified’s efforts to equip its schools with “the technology that will allow us to keep our schools safe,” Picazo says.

But while the district has made room in its budget for expanded security training, active shooter drills, and infrastructure “hardening,” its safety plan also recognizes the role of mental health services, social-emotional supports, and greater student and community engagement to improve school climate and safety.

A student being scanned by a metal detector

When San Diego Unified took on the mandate to become a “Restorative District” in 2014, that included its police department. Picazo and colleagues underwent training on integrating restorative justice practices such as circles, conferencing, and mediation as it incorporated the district’s emphasis on cultivating empathy, repairing harm, and building strong relationships as a key to campus safety.

“We’ve gone from a punitive type of response to a trauma-informed response when responding to situations involving minors,” Picazo says. “Every day our officers are looking for opportunities to have positive interactions with students.” A byproduct of those interactions “is that it is shaping the perspective our community has of us,” he adds.

Anxious Times

In the security-heightened atmosphere that has come to define K-12 campuses post Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland, infrastructure security — from metal detectors to bulletproof drywall — has entered the school safety conversation. The goal, of course is to prevent a repeat of the 24 shootings that occurred at U.S. schools in 2018, and that resulted in the death or injury of 114 people, according to a database compiled by Education Week. Between January and May 2019, the database tracked 13 school shootings resulting in 22 deaths or injuries.

Since the April 1999 Columbine massacre, there have been more than 230 shootings on K-12 campuses affecting more than 228,000 students, according to data compiled by the Washington Post.

With that backdrop, the school security business has grown to a nearly $3 billion industry with 60 percent of that revenue generated by elementary and secondary schools, according to the research firm IHS Markit.

While the industry has taken off, one of the big things missing is that “we don’t have a good measure of the characteristics, the concrete tangible traits of a safe school,” says Sheldon Greenberg, a professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Division of Public Safety in Baltimore.

“We tend to measure our successes in terms of absence of negatives. If there’s no serious crime in a school, no incidents over the course of a year, we say the school is safe,” says Greenberg, a former police officer. But that safe school still could have students who have experienced fear or trauma that’s gone unreported.

Consider the anxiety that some students develop after experiencing active shooter response drills. “We don’t address that well in the whole school security movement, and we don’t know the long-term consequences,” he says.

Even some teachers have expressed concern about the appropriateness of certain drills, says Amanda Klinger, co-founder of the Educators School Safety Network, which advises schools on safety issues. “We’re starting to see pushback from educators saying, ‘I don’t need to be trained like a commando; I’m a third-grade teacher.’”

Creating school safety requires physically securing buildings and maintaining a focus on student well-being, says Verjeana Jacobs, chief equity and member services officer for the National School Boards Association (NSBA). “These are not separate conversations. They have to go together.”

Jacobs oversaw the launch of NSBA’s new Center for Safe Schools. It provides resources and information for creating safe and secure learning environments by focusing on infrastructure and whole-child health, along with cybersecurity and crisis and emergency management.

“A safe school environment to us is much more than securing a building,” she says. “It’s really about having teachers, parents, administrators, school district leaders, and communities understand their role in ensuring that all children are safe in their own skin—mentally, emotionally, socially, physically — and have a safe place to learn.”

In fact, “it’s about teaching and learning,” Jacobs adds. “We feel strongly that the social-emotional well-being of the adults in the building is also important so that they can be better adults for the children they engage.”

In addition to NSBA, Johns Hopkins University is among several national organizations and institutions recently launching efforts to provide better education and research related to school safety issues. In announcing its Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, Hopkins said it will take an interdisciplinary approach drawing on the expertise of researchers in the fields of education, public health, engineering, arts and sciences, and medicine.

Beyond Physical Upgrades

A week after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2017, Kentucky’s Fayette County Public Schools faced its own safety challenge. An anonymous tip left on the district’s safety hotline said that a student owned a gun and had threatened a school shooting. Lexington Police removed a rifle and about 500 rounds of ammunition from the student’s bedroom. Two separate incidents involving students bringing loaded guns to other district schools soon followed.

A month later, Superintendent Manny Caulk established a task force made up of school officials; students; teachers; first responders; and government, business, and faith community leaders from throughout the county to examine safety and security in the district. Their work resulted in the district’s Comprehensive 10-Point Safety Investment Plan. It calls for, among other things, hiring an additional 50 police officers to the district staff of 35; reducing the ratio of mental health specialists from 650- to-1 to 250-to-1, and placing a full-time nurse at each of the district’s six high schools. The plan also includes metal detectors in every middle and high school along with security ambassadors to assist school staff with bag searches and screenings, and the monitoring of social media posts for online threats.

“Our goal is to make our schools among the safest in the nation by going beyond facility upgrades to also address school climate and culture, social-emotional learning, planning, prevention, training, communication, and physical and mental well-being,” Caulk says.

“Each component of (the plan) works in tandem, not only to prevent a school shooting, but also to mitigate the other risks our students face including bullying, self-harm, suicide, drug use, online exploitation, trauma, and community-based issues.”

To finance the $13.5 million safety initiative, the board approved a five-cent property tax to fund “a recurring and dedicated revenue stream that can only be spent on safety,” ensuring that “these critically important safety resources will remain in place,” Caulk says.

In choosing how best to keep schools safe and secure, district leaders should keep in mind the “opportunity costs” of their initiatives and the return on investment, says David Osher, a fellow with the American Institutes for Research.

Issues such as how does an individual safety initiative connect to the other goals or initiatives underway in the school; what may have to go unfunded to afford a new effort; and what are potential negative consequences must be considered, says Osher, who studies school climate and conditions for learning.

Broad-Driven Safety Effort

New Hampshire’s School Administrative Unit SAU 16 took a similar community-advisory approach to address school safety. In the state, administrative services (such as superintendent services, special education services, business/financial services, and curriculum services) are provided to multiple school districts by an Administrative Unit. SAU 16 includes seven independent school districts with a combined enrollment of approximately 5,790 students in six Southeast Region towns.

Initially, the SAU’s 50-member safety and security committee — made up of educators, administrators, law enforcement, and other community stakeholders — focused on physical security goals for district buildings such as adding surveillance cameras, security vestibules at building entrances, and shatterproof safety film coverings on window glass, says Travis Thompson, SAU 16 chairman and president of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.

students walking through metal detectors

“A parallel thing that we really focused on at the beginning was our plans and processes and making sure that they were consistent across all of our districts and for all of our schools,” Thompson says. “None of the ‘target-hardening’ really matters if you don’t communicate and have a plan in place that everyone knows and understands.”

Along with lockdown drills and the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate) active shooter response procedure, SAU 16 also instituted reunification drills. “If an incident should occur, whether it’s shooting-related or a chemical spill, or any reason why you need to pull students out of the building, to reunify them with appropriate family members is one of our ultimate responsibilities as the school district,” he says.

Following the initiatives emphasizing physical safety, SAU 16 “has made strong efforts to get past ‘how do we respond’ and get to ‘how do we prevent it from happening in the first place,’” Thompson says. It worked with the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association to develop and implement behavioral intervention teams trained in identifying early warning signs in students who may pose a risk to themselves or others.

An anonymous hotline is available, so students can report any concerns about a peer in crisis, and “we’ve continued to train counselors and teachers in recognizing potential problems, in suicide prevention, in ‘see something, say something,’” Thompson says.

And while the safety committee constantly evaluates what more can be and should be done, especially on the infrastructure side, “you have to balance that we are still schools, we’re here to educate kids, not to make the buildings look like a fortress,” he adds.

Schools as Oasis

The School District of Philadelphia heard that complaint earlier this year when the board voted to mandate the use of metal detectors and scanning equipment in all 49 high schools to help keep schools safe and secure. Although many in the city welcomed the added security, critics said that requiring the hardware in education settings was another act of criminalizing students.

District officials are committed to implementing the policy “consistently throughout this very large district” so that students “don’t feel like they’re entering a prison” but do feel the policy’s intention “to keep students within the buildings safe,” says Jody Greenblatt, deputy chief of climate and safety for the 130,000-student district.

One way to do that, Greenblatt says, is having school police officers who staff the metal detectors know and greet students by name. It’s important to train them to recognize the signs and symptoms of a student having a mental health issue or experiencing trauma. They should be able to create “that safe and warm environment where, yes, there’s a metal detector, but our focus is on the well-being of students.”

students talking with a school resource officer

Efforts to develop that approach are underway. They are part of the district’s growing focus on student wellness as a crucial element to creating a safe and supportive environment so all students can achieve, Greenblatt says. “Over the last couple of years, all our police officers have been trained in mental health first aid, in implicit bias, in de-escalation. But we view that as just a start.”

It’s coupled with the district’s move away from a punitive discipline model and toward one that seeks to restore students to the community when possible; the use of positive behavior interventions and supports; building a greater sense of community and strengthening relationships within schools; teaching students to resolve conflicts and understand empathy through social and emotional learning; and helping them navigate the impact of adverse childhood experiences via trauma-informed care.

“Living in a high-violent, high-poverty city, many of our students come to school every day with a lot of baggage and a lot on their plates,” she says. The emphasis on wellness is essential “to helping students feel safe and secure inside school” so that they can learn.

“In some of our tougher neighborhoods in the city, the schools are the oasis, and the ‘bad guys’ know to stay away from them and the people that are in the schools because they are the people taking care of the kids,” Greenblatt says.

As for extensive facilities-hardening efforts in the district, that’s a limited proposition for a poor, urban district like Philadelphia, she says. “Some of our buildings have cameras. They’re old. They’re used when needed if they work.” A state grant enabled the district to update its walkie-talkies to improve emergency communications, “but there’s definitely no effort underway for the district to harden anything.”

There exists a “tremendous imbalance” in the school safety movement, Hopkins’ Greenberg says. “Schools that don’t have serious problems or threats, but have money, are spending lots of money on school safety technology and resources.” Their counterparts with fewer resources “aren’t getting the money they need to enhance safety to the degree they should.”

That’s compounded by the fact that when gun violence occurs in more affluent areas, it’s often viewed with intense concern unlike the violence in poorer, urban communities, “even though such violence may have the same life-changing impact on children,” Jacobs says.

In fact, a whole range of other crisis events, from natural disasters to student health emergencies “can have an incredibly broad impact on schools and their communities,” and they require proper procedures to respond effectively, says Klinger of the Educators School Safety Network.

While not minimizing the seriousness of mass shootings, which get most of the attention when discussing school safety, Greenberg says it should be remembered that school shootings remain “very isolated and very infrequent.” In fact, “the issues that trouble school teachers, counselors, nurses, and students on a day-to-day basis, aren’t active shooters,” he says, but “student well-being and the well-being of employees. So, we really have to begin thinking about school safety relative to what’s right for the individual school.”

Photography courtesy of Fayette County Public Schools 

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