Popular efforts to expand student safety may compromise school climate
Security technologies in schools correlated with increased student fear and mistrust of educators
February 7, 2019—On February 14, 2018, a former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, murdered 17 students and staff and injured 17 others. Three months later, the same scenario ensued at Santa Fe High School outside of Houston, Texas, leaving 10 people dead and 10 injured. In an effort to expand student safety, schools nationwide are turning to the “target hardening” approach, focusing on the use of metal detectors, surveillance cameras, lockdown procedures, and more. In a new article for Education Next, Bryan R. Warnick and Ryan Kapa of the Ohio State University examine the approach’s impact on students and schools, arguing that target hardening does more harm than good.
Target hardening has become increasingly popular among public schools. For example, security cameras were present in only 19.4 percent of public schools in 1999–2000 but were installed in more than 80 percent of public schools by 2015–2016. The share of public schools employing security professionals also increased considerably between 2005–06 and 2015–16: security staff from 42 percent to 57 percent; law enforcement officers from 36 percent to 48 percent; and school resource officers (SROs) from 32 percent to 42 percent. In November 2018, voters in jurisdictions including Indianapolis Public Schools, Indiana; Cook County, Illinois; Miami-Dade County, Florida; and the state of New Jersey approved ballot measures to fund school-security enhancements and expanded student mental-health services. But efforts to keep schools secure may exaggerate safety needs and compromise school climate.
“How do we weigh our awareness of the overall safe character of U.S. schools against the compelling desire to prevent more school shootings?” ask Warnick and Kapa. “In our view, achieving such a balance means taking rational and effective actions to prevent school shootings while also being cautious not to sacrifice educational goals or the school climate.”
Among Warnick and Kapa’s key insights:
Student deaths at school are extremely rare. Children and youth are 87 times more likely to die by murder or suicide outside of school than in it. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of at-school homicides of students has not exceeded 34 in any year since 1993. Suicides are even rarer, and have not exceeded 10 in any year during the same period. Furthermore, of the 1,168 total homicides of youths ages 5–18 during the 2014–15 school year, only 20 occurred at school.
Hardening school environments may shift the way we view students. A hardened environment frames children and youth not as learners but as potential threats to be monitored, controlled, and potentially feared. Indeed, some student subgroups feel the shifting perspective more acutely than others: research indicates that black students perceive school security practices as being implemented less fairly than their white peers do.
Students often feel less safe in environments with security technologies. Though citing correlational—not causal—research findings, Warnick and Kapa report that students say they feel less safe in schools with visible security measures. Researchers have noted similar findings for schools that employ SROs: students report a greater sense of fear over their safety; a more disruptive or disordered school environment; and a greater likelihood of being arrested.
Hardened security measures correlated with decreased trust in schools and educators. Studies have found that parents are less likely to become formally involved in schools that incorporate security technologies while students are less likely to participate in extracurricular activities. Further, the use of target-hardening strategies is associated with less student trust in teachers and administrators.
Successful efforts to avert school shootings feature open communication. Common among successful efforts to prevent school shootings, Warnick and Kapa cite the culture of open communication and trust between parents, students, and schools. For example, students and parents who voiced safety concerns recently helped stop planned attacks in Ripon, Wisconsin; Hilliard, Ohio; and Frederick County, Maryland. Threat assessment, another popular approach to school security recommended by the FBI, Secret Service, and Department of Education, combines target hardening with trust building and communication to systematically assess threatening student behavior and offer them support.
“Instead of simply hardening schools against attack, educators should focus on building school environments characterized by mutual trust, active listening, respect for student voices and expression, cooperativeness, and caring relationships with and among students,” say Warnick and Kapa. “These measures not only make schools safer, they also make schools better.”
To receive an embargoed copy of “Protecting Students from Gun Violence: Does ‘target hardening’ do more harm than good?” or to speak with the authors, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at firstname.lastname@example.org. The article will be available Monday, February 11 on www.educationnext.org and will appear in the Spring 2019 issue of Education Next, available in print on February 27, 2019.
About the Authors: Bryan R. Warnick is professor and associate dean in the College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University. Ryan Kapa is a postdoctoral researcher in the Center on Education and Training for Employment at The Ohio State University.
About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit www.educationnext.org.