School Safety and Security: Research and Evidence

Update: Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model, United States Secret Service (2018)

If You Want to Know How to Stop School Shootings, Ask the Secret Service, Jeff Daniels, Professor of Counseling, West Virginia University

The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative, United States Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education (2002)

Overview of Safe School Initiative Findings

The findings of the Safe School Initiative suggest that there are productive actions that educators, law enforcement officials and others can pursue in response to the problem of targeted school violence. Specifically, Initiative findings suggest that these officials may wish to consider focusing their efforts to formulate strategies for preventing these attacks in two principal areas:

  • developing the capacity to pick up on and evaluate available or knowable information that might indicate that there is a risk of a targeted school attack; and,
  • employing the results of these risk evaluations or “threat assessments” in developing strategies to prevent potential school attacks from occurring.

Support for these suggestions is found in 10 key findings of the Safe School Initiative study. These findings are as follows:

  • Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts.
  • Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.
  • Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.
  • There is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence.
  • Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.
  • Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.
  • Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack.
  • Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
  • In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
  • Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.

Why security measures won’t stop school shootings, Bryan Warnick, Benjamin A. Johnson, and Sam Rocha

If anything, the response of the Kentucky lawmakers represents what has been called the “target-hardening” approach to school shootings. This approach attempts to fortify schools against gun violence through increased security measures. These measures may include metal detectors, lock-down policies, “run, hide, fight” training and surveillance cameras.

While some of these measures seem sensible, overall there is little empirical evidence that such security measures decrease the likelihood of school shootings. Surveillance cameras were powerless to stop the carnage in Columbine and school lock-down policies did not save the children at Sandy Hook.

Preventing School Shootings: The Effectiveness of Safety MeasuresCheryl Lero Jonson

Abstract

The tragedies at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook Elementary School catapulted concern about school shootings into the national spotlight. Calls for something to be done to protect our students, faculty, and staff became a salient concern for school administrators, with many schools hiring armed security officers, restricting access to campus buildings, installing metal detectors, and training individuals how to respond when a shooter enters school grounds. However, many of these security measures were implemented with little to no consultation of the empirical literature. This failure to enact evidence-based responses has had fiscal and latent consequences that are only now being discovered. This essay seeks to fill that void by examining the empirical evidence surrounding common security measures enacted in response to well-publicized school shootings and calling for the use of an evidence-based approach to school safety.

School Security Measures and Their Impact on Students, National Association of School Psychologists

Impact of Security Measures on Violence

  • There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, 8,9,10,11 and little is known about the potential for unintended consequences that may accompany their adoption.12
  • There has not been sufficient research to determine if the presence of metal detectors in schools reduces the risk of violent behavior among students. 13
  • Some researchers have expressed concern about the widespread use of guards, cameras, and other security technologies, given that so little is known about their effectiveness. 14,15
  • Research has found security strategies, such as the use of security guards and metal detectors, to be consistently ineffective in protecting students16 and to be associated with more incidents of school crime and disruption17 and higher levels of disorder in schools. 18
  • Evidence from a school–police partnership implemented in New York City reveals that students in these schools continue to experience higher than average problems linked directly to future criminality, compared to students in other New York City schools not involved in the partnership. 19
  • Surveillance cameras in schools may have the effect of simply moving misbehavior to places in schools or outside of schools that lack surveillance. Even more troubling, it’s possible that cameras may function as enticement to large-scale violence, such as in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter who mailed video images of himself to news outlets.20
  • Research suggests that the presence of security guards and metal detectors in schools may actually increase levels of violence in schools by strengthening the influence of youth “street” culture with its emphasis on self-protection.21

More Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows, Melinda Wenner Moyer (Scientific American)

More than 30 peer-reviewed studies, focusing on individuals as well as populations, have been published that confirm what Kellermann’s studies suggested: that guns are associated with an increased risk for violence and homicide. “There is really uniform data to support the statement that access to firearms is associated with an increased risk of firearm-related death and injury,” Wintemute concludes. Gun advocates argue the causes are reversed: surges in violent crime lead people to buy guns, and weapons do not create the surge. But if that were true, gun purchases would increase in tandem with all kinds of violence. In reality, they do not.

Student Surveillance, Racial Inequalities, and Implicit Racial Bias, Jason P. Nance

Abstract

In the wake of high-profile incidents of school violence, school officials have increased their reliance on a host of surveillance measures to maintain order and control in their schools. Paradoxically, such practices can foster hostile environments that may lead to even more disorder and dysfunction. These practices may also contribute to the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” by pushing more students out of school and into the juvenile justice system. However, not all students experience the same level of surveillance. This Article presents data on school surveillance practices, including an original empirical analysis of restricted data recently released by the U.S. Department of Education after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Paralleling other disturbing trends of inequality in our public school system, these results and other empirical analyses reveal that schools serving primarily students of color are more likely to rely on more intense surveillance measures than other schools. Further, the empirical evidence suggests that these racial disparities may not be justified by legitimate safety concerns. This Article then turns to a discussion of the role that implicit racial bias may have in school officials’ decisions to rely on intense surveillance methods. Finally, it proposes legislation and strategies that federal lawmakers, state lawmakers, and school officials should adopt to counteract the effect of implicit racial bias on school officials’ decisions to implement strict security measures (and other decisions school officials make). Implementing these recommendations will help create better learning environments that benefit students of all races.

Latino/a Student Threat and School Disciplinary Policies and PracticesKelly Welch and Allison Ann Payne

Abstract

Using a nationally representative sample of approximately 3,500 public schools, this study builds on and extends our knowledge of how ‘‘minority threat’’ manifests within schools. We test whether various disciplinary policies and practices are mobilized in accordance with Latino/a student composition, presumably the result of a group response to perceptions that white racial dominance is jeopardized. We gauge how schools’ Latino/a student populations are associated with the availability and use of several specific types of discipline. We further explore possible moderating influences of school crime and economic disadvantage on punishment. We find that schools with larger percentages of Latino/a students are more likely to favor certain punitive responses and less likely to favor certain mild responses, as predicted by minority threat. The percentage of Latino/a students is also related to greater use of certain disciplinary responses in schools with less crime.

Mental Illness Didn’t Make Him Do It, Jonathan Foiles (Psychology Today)

The supposed link between mental illness and violence is so ingrained in our culture that stories like the above need only suggest that the perpetrator was depressed to satisfy a need for an explanation. Research reveals a far different story, however. People with mental illnesses are actually far more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence (Appleby et. al., 2001). Those with severe mental illnesses (schizophreniabipolar disorderpsychosis) are actually 2.5 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than the general population (Hiday, 2006). A 2011 study found that to prevent one violent homicide by a person with schizophrenia, 35,000 patients deemed to be at a high risk of violence would need to be detained (Large et. al., 2011). And yet the link persists. A 2013 survey conducted after the Newtown shooting found that 46 percent of Americans believe that persons with a serious mental illness are “far more dangerous than the general population” (Barry et. al., 2013).

The MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study Revisited: Two Views Ten Years After Its Initial PublicationE. Fuller Torrey , M.D., Jonathan Stanley , J.D., John Monahan , Ph.D., and Henry J. Steadman , Ph.D.

The lessons to be learned from the MacArthur Study are those that we have identified in our various publications. Among the more salient findings, violence risk attributed to people with mental disorders vastly exceeds the actual risk presented. Indeed, for people who do not abuse alcohol and drugs, there is no reason to anticipate that they present greater risk than their neighbors. The predictors of violence by people with mental disorders are more similar to than different from the predictors for the population as a whole, including alcohol and drug abuse. Violence in this population only rarely results in serious injury or death and generally does not involve the use of weapons. People with mental disorders are less likely than people without such disorders to assault strangers and to commit assaults in public places. Although there is suggestive evidence that remaining in treatment may reduce rates of violence among some persons with mental disorders, better data are needed; it is unlikely that treatment alone will eliminate violence risk.

Most Mass Shooters Are Not Mentally Ill, Carmela Epright

Sociologists explain why American men turn to gun violence, Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober

A great deal of commentary attempts to tie mass shootings to a single issue. Often, that seems like the easiest way to make sense of atrocities. That’s why we get sound bites that lean on mental health (when shooters are white), terrorist ties and affiliations (when shooters are brown), gang violence and “urban decay” (when shooters are black), bullying (when it happens in a school), and overwork (when it happens in a workplace).

The truth cannot be boiled down to any single issue. As sociologists, we can look to the bigger picture, point out patterns, and identify common denominators. Our research suggests that gun control is, indeed, an important piece of the problem. But in order to understand the factors behind America’s mass shootings, it is also critical to consider the relationship between masculinity and violence.

Scholars who study masculinity and mass shootings have consistently drawn attention to the fact that mass shootings are not only a uniquely American social problem; they are a problem with American men. We’ve argued before that there are two questions that require explanation related to gender and mass shootings. First, why is it that men commit virtually all mass shootings? And second, why do American men commit mass shootings more than men anywhere else in the world?

The psychological effects of ‘active-shooter drills’ on kids could do more harm than good, James Hamblin

Studies of whether active-shooter drills actually prevent harm are all but impossible. Case studies are difficult to parse. In Parkland, for example, the site of the recent shooting, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, had an active-shooter drill just last month. The shooter had been through such drills. Purposely countering them may have been a reason that, as he was beginning his rampage, the shooter pulled a fire alarm.

In any case, preparedness drills always change the baseline level of risk that people perceive. This heightening can manifest as stress and anxiety, not to mention changing the way kids understand how people treat one another—to even consider violence an option, not in some abstract way.

Colleen Derkatch, an associate professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, studies how we assess risk when it comes to our health. “The more prepared we are, the more heightened our sense of risk,” she told me. “And one potential effect we haven’t considered is how these kinds of preparedness activities affect kids psychologically, and could increase a sense of feeling at risk. They really expand the ways in which we feel increasingly under siege.”

POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR GUN VIOLENCE PREVENTION USING A RACIAL, DISABILITY, AND LGBTQ JUSTICE FRAMEWORK

The National LGBTQ Task Force is a progressive social justice organization that works toward a society that values and respects the diversity of human expression and identity, and achieves equity for all. As the progressive voice of the LGBTQ movement, the Task Force approaches gun violence prevention from an intersectional framework conscious of issues such as racial justice, disability justice, and reproductive justice. These policy recommendations are meant to provide a guide for policy makers and advocates alike on advocacy for gun violence prevention from a progressive, intersectional perspective. In this policy brief, we have identified 10 recommendations for addressing our nation’s gun violence epidemic.

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