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Expert opinion

Keeping kids safe at school

by Kathleen Minke

It is imperative that we stay focused on the strategies that will actually keep our children and their teachers safe on a daily basis.

The recent PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools indicates that many parents are fearful about their children’s safety at school. This is unsurprising given the recent tragic mass shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas. Such tragedies stretch back decades, but the all-encompassing media coverage and growing exposure through social media magnifies and distorts the likelihood of a child being killed at school. Statistically, schools remain among the safest places for children. Statistics are, of course, meaningless when your child or your community is affected by sudden violence. These incidents also are disturbing to those who are not directly affected but whose perception of safety is altered by high-profile tragedies.

Perception is extremely important. What people believe is true with regard to safety — whether it is or not — can undermine their sense of well-being and security and, in a school context, students’ ability to focus on learning. In the vein of “do no harm,” we all need to ensure that we are not perpetuating potentially harmful misperceptions that unnecessarily could increase issues such as anxiety, behavior problems, and school avoidance. Moreover, perception drives decision making and use of resources. It is imperative that we stay focused on the strategies that will actually keep our children and their teachers safe on a daily basis. To accomplish this goal, both physical and psychological safety must be addressed in a comprehensive, proactive way.

The National Association of School Psychologists partnered with five colleague associations to produce the Framework for Safe and Successful Schools in 2013. This framework outlines essential policies and practices that create safe and healthy schools. Educators and parents should be familiar with the Framework and advocate in their schools for the implementation of a comprehensive school safety plan. A few key elements are highlighted here.

Safe schools plan ahead

Parents and teachers should ask school administrators about the school’s crisis prevention and intervention plan. If the answer is something like: “We have a binder around here somewhere,” then the school does NOT have a crisis plan. Every school should have a school safety and crisis team that includes the principal and other key administrators, school-employed mental health professionals (e.g., school psychologist, school counselor, school social worker), school resource officer or head of security, teachers, and parents. This team should meet regularly to develop and evaluate schoolwide safety initiatives, plan for coordinated responses to a broad range of crisis events (e.g., death of a teacher or student, suicidal risks, natural disasters), and manage threat assessment processes. Parents, students, and staff will be less concerned about safety in schools that are prepared.

It is important to note that ongoing school safety goes well beyond crisis preparedness. Effective safety efforts must address issues such as positive behavior and discipline, bullying prevention, gang presence, and the ripple effects of community violence and family stressors. Although the PDK poll was completed in the shadow of Parkland and Santa Fe, these other safety issues for many parents and their children are far more tangible and closer to home. This reality, rather than a greater concern about a school shooter per se, is most likely behind respondents of color and those in lower-income and urban areas expressing higher levels of concern for their children’s safety at school.

Safe schools are welcoming communities, not fortresses

Clearly, physical safety at school is critical. Schools should make sure students are supervised and monitored, visitors to the building are identified and escorted to their destinations, and access to the playground and building is controlled. However, the primary emphasis should be on building a positive school climate in which every student has a strong relationship with at least one adult in the building. There should be a confidential process for students and adults to report safety concerns and possible threats. These approaches are more likely to be successful than efforts to overly harden schools that research shows actually can make students feel less safe.

Most parents who were polled recognized that arming teachers is not a preferred strategy for safety. Simply put, more guns create more risk. Where will such guns be stored? In the classroom? Anyone who has ever worked in a school knows that there is no such thing as a safely locked cabinet. If the guns are not kept in the classroom, how will they be accessed in the event of an active shooter? When the police arrive, how will they know who are teachers and who are the shooters?

Parents were more likely to endorse arming teachers if these teachers were trained. However, it is hard to imagine training that would be sufficient to outweigh the risks. Although 80 hours of training sounds like a lot at first glance, consider how often police experience unintentional or inappropriate discharges of their weapons, many times with tragic results. Police train continually to be proficient with weapons, yet data from New York and Los Angeles police indicate that they hit their targets less than half the time in live situations. How likely is it that teachers will do better? The National Association of School Resource Officers, a coauthor of the Framework for Safe and Successful Schools, outlined a series of such concerns in a statement urging extreme caution regarding arming school staff.

I once spoke with a highly trained middle school resource officer who nearly had his weapon taken from him by a student. He remained distraught about this incident months later because the full weight of what could have happened was crystal clear to him. If guns are in schools, they should be only in the hands of trained police, and this should never be the only safety measure in place.

Safe schools provide comprehensive supports to all students

Most parents polled supported screening all students for mental health problems. This is good news and an indication that people are beginning to understand the connection between mental health and learning and the value of providing services in schools where kids spend so much of their day. There are well-developed screening methods that can identify students in need of additional support for issues like depression, anxiety, and conduct problems. It is important to recognize, however, that there is no screening that will identify students who are likely to become shooters. Screening should be used to identify those students who require greater support and intervention to ensure their safety and to reach their potential both academically and behaviorally. Critical to schools doing this successfully is having adequate numbers of school-employed mental health professionals, like school psychologists, on staff to conduct screening and prevention efforts, provide counseling and other interventions, consult with teachers and parents on appropriate classroom supports, and make referrals to and collaborate with community and clinical providers. Two things we know are true: Screening in the absence of intervention is a waste of time and resources, and relying solely on outside mental health services often creates disconnects in service delivery and the benefit of interventions in the school setting.

When asked to choose between spending money on mental health services or armed guards, 71% of parents polled chose mental health services.

Schools should employ multi-tiered systems of support that address students’ emotional and academic needs. In these approaches, attention is given to creating a positive school climate for all students, in which exclusion through suspension and expulsion is minimized and social-emotional competence and a sense of community are emphasized. Those students who need additional supports participate in group and individualized interventions to develop their skills in a wide variety of areas like making friends, managing emotions, and solving problems. When students have these skills, they are far less likely to be marginalized in the community and far less likely to turn to violence to try to solve their problems. Parents recognize the need to support children’s social-emotional and behavioral development. When asked to choose between spending money on mental health services or armed guards, 71% of parents polled chose mental health services.

School safety requires comprehensive planning, continual training, and careful evaluation. Schools should engage with parents and the larger community in accomplishing these tasks until every child is and feels safe at school and in the community.

Kathleen Minke

KATHLEEN MINKE is executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.

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