My previous post (Coming Soon to a School Near You?) recounted firsthand experiences with gun violence in DeKalb County, Georgia and Virginia Beach, Virginia, as well as statistics showing that the rate of school shootings continues to rise. This piece examines three ways school districts can deal with the increased threat of gun violence at their schools.
There has been an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of metal detectors in preventing gun violence at schools. In a recent guest post in the Washington Post, Carmen Black, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University, built a strong case against the use of metal detectors at schools.
One of Dr. Black’s arguments is something I’d seen before: “Security measures [such as metal detectors] were disproportionately adopted in large schools with high populations of African American students. The security features adopted in these schools often were above and beyond the level of misbehavior and crime in those schools” (Anzalone, 2015). Another concern, according to Dr. Black, is “resource cannibalism,” where a sizable portion of funding in schools serving kids of color is directed toward expensive policing practices instead of much-needed educational and student support initiatives (Black, 2021).
While students at predominantly African American schools are more likely to experience gun violence on school grounds after 4:00 p.m.—usually at after-school events—shootings at majority White schools typically take place during school hours and “tend to be more lethal, with an average of three victims per incident” (CNN, 2019). Examples of the latter are the slayings at Columbine High School in Colorado, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and more recently, Oxford High School in Michigan.
A few years ago, I would not have recommended the widespread use of walk-through metal detectors in public schools. With the increase in gun violence during the pandemic (Mozes, 2021), and no end in sight to the senseless murders, I am now of the mind that metal detectors should be installed at secondary schools, but only if the community and faculty support this type of action. At a minimum, all K-12 schools should have door entry systems staffed by well-trained security personnel.
Rather than bring in an ordinary beat cop to work security, the individuals hired to protect schools should be equally skilled in security matters and interpersonal relations. Effective educators build trust with students—this is discussed later—and school security staff must also possess this ability. It’s possible to be both vigilant and affable while monitoring a door entry system or metal detector.
Results of Google search for school metal detectors
As shown above, metal detectors cost thousands of dollars, a substantial sum given the traditional underfunding of public schools. Simply stating that metal detectors are too expensive is not defensible. Let’s weigh the cost of a metal detector against two other costs:
The Cost of Life – If a metal detector prevents a single death, then it is worth the price.
The Cost of Freedom – In a society where ordinary citizens, including teenagers, are allowed to buy and openly carry weapons designed to kill people, there are times when certain measures must be taken to save lives (see The Cost of Life).
Naturally, many parents will complain about the trauma suffered by their kids if they are forced to walk through a metal detector every day. It will be interesting to see if the anti-metal detector crowd includes the same folks who turned out at school board meetings to rail about the “trauma” that mask-wearing, transgender policies, and books about other cultures and lifestyles creates for children.
Teachers have different opinions regarding metal detectors in schools. Some object to such devices because they don’t want students to “feel like they attend school inside of a prison or that their educators perceive them as a threat” (Patrick, 2021). Other teachers see metal detectors as a step taken to ensure the safety of everyone in a school building (Nott, 2018).
Returning to the cost issue, districts that opt to buy metal detectors will upset many of their teachers, who continue to be underpaid and overworked in a profession that is far more dangerous and stressful than it was two years ago. There is already a lack of qualified teachers, the topic of an earlier blog post.
Mental Health Services
In an Education Trust post titled It’s Time to Consider Removing Metal Detectors from Schools Now, Kayla Patrick cited experts, researchers, and advocates who “agree on this one thing: Trusting and caring relationships among students and staff, rigorous and engaging curriculum, and equitable discipline policies make schools safer than metal detectors could ever make them” (Patrick, 2021).
It would be hard to dispute the previous statement, but the reality is that public schools are short-staffed, testing takes precedence over engaging curriculum, and discipline tends to be inequitable. In addition, the rates of “depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality” for children and adolescents brought on by the pandemic continue to soar (American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child, & Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association, 2021). My second recommendation to reduce the threat of gun violence is to beef up mental health services at schools.
At the federal level, the president’s FY 2022 budget proposal asks for “increased funding and resources to hire school counselors, nurses, and mental health professionals” at the K-12 level (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2021). This is a step in the right direction; however, I’m not going to make any predictions about what the final budget will look like.
Virginia is one of several states to pass pandemic-era legislation meant to address the mental health of students. The School Equity and Staffing Act, SB 1257, “requires each school board to provide at least three specialized student support positions, including school social workers, school psychologists, school nurses, licensed behavior analysts, licensed assistant behavior analysts, and other licensed health and behavioral positions, per 1,000 students” (Virginia’s Legislative Information System, 2021).
At the school level, having additional people with the job titles listed above might change or save lives, though a lot depends on the competency of these jobholders. Robin Lanehurst, a former school counselor, argued that The Answer to Saving Kids’ Lives Is Not to Hire More School Counselors. She asserted, “school counselors have become a dumping ground for every task that isn’t automatically assigned by policy or law to someone else” (Lanehurst, 2021).
Hmmm... if you replace “school counselors” in the previous sentence with “teachers,” the assertion is still true. Lanehurst’s suggestion to hire paraprofessionals and other uncertified personnel to handle routine tasks would give counselors time to take care of more important matters (e.g., attending to the social-emotional needs of students). The same would be true for teachers if extra people were available to help them with menial work.
The quote at the beginning of this section mentioned that “trusting and caring relationships among students and staff” are one way to make schools safer. The last section of this post explains why such relationships are perhaps the most effective means of preventing school shootings.
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) offers 19 tips for preventing school violence. The tips are for adults, but three of the top four are directed at students:
Encourage students to take responsibility for their part in maintaining safe school environments, including student participation in safety planning.
Reiterate the school rules and request that students report potential problems to school officials.
Remind students of the importance of resisting peer pressure to act irresponsibly. (NASP, 2021)
As I was reading these items, I visualized the economics teacher in Ferris Buehler’s Day Off telling a class of bored teens in his monotone voice to “report potential problems and resist peer pressure because it will... anyone, anyone, maintain a safe school environment.” Simply encouraging and reminding students to do something does not mean that they will.
Regardless of their years of experience, some teachers have what seems to be an inherent ability to create trusting relationships with each student. Who were your favorite teachers during your school days? Chances are they were people you trusted and who truly cared about you. At a time when trust between educators and parents is on the decline (Merod, 2021), it’s critical for teachers to build trusting relationships with all of their students.
The benefits of positive teacher-student relationships (TSRs) are well documented. A meta-analysis of research—studies comprising tens of thousands of K-12 students—indicated that “associations of TSRs with [student] engagement and achievement were substantial” (Roorda et al., 2011). A later review of 47 studies that examined adolescent students’ relationships with teachers reported “better quality TSRs were associated with enhanced engagement in school” (Quin, 2017). Trusting relationships between teachers and students have additional benefits, which is why I believe that positive TSRs are the best way to avert shootings and other forms of violence in schools.
Like I said before, building positive relationships with students comes naturally to some educators, yet “not every teacher enters the classroom having learned the nuts and bolts of how to develop and nurture teacher-student relationships” (Nguyen. 2021). Four practices that teachers can use to connect and foster trust with students are described in this short article: The ‘How’ of Building Deeper Relationships with Students.
The number one tip on the list of 19 items mentioned earlier is “Create a safe, supportive school climate” (NASP, 2021). This isn’t the sole responsibility of teachers. School administrators must take the lead and set examples through interactions with every student and employee in their school. Maintaining a safe, supportive school climate is an ongoing effort that requires active involvement from everyone in the building.
While I was reading articles and looking for other material to include in this piece, I came across the website of Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), a nonprofit organization founded by two parents whose children were among the 20 first graders killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The organization’s Say Something program provides resources for teaching students in grades 4-12 “the warning signs and behaviors that could lead to someone hurting themselves or others. . . . [and] how to safely report these signals and potential threats” (SHP, 2021). The purpose of another SHP program, Start With Hello, is to “create safer and kinder schools” by teaching students empathy and how to reach out to their socially isolated peers (SHP, 2021). SHP’s lessons and activities for educators, students, and parents—videos, PowerPoints, storybooks, handbooks, and workbooks—are free. All you have to do is register here.
Author’s view of the US Capitol at the March For Our Lives, March 2018
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