Dramatic changes have transpired over the past 20 years when one imagines school safety. Historically, safety meant that the teachers and administrators would intervene and terminate a physical altercation between students. Students were safe from the elements of the environment in a setting where the temperature was relatively stable, meals were served, and plumbing was reliable. Safety drills meant fire drills or tornado drills. Flashing forward, it’s almost difficult to realize that school today has transformed most all of those definitions.
Physical altercations between students like a fistfight in the parking lot, while still in evidence, rarely top the list of paramount concerns of students, teachers, or parents. The larger, more frequent and more omnipresent concerns are often those of social medial linked harassment or bullying. Furthermore, it is many of those initial threads that are often seen, in retrospect, as tipping points where a student or group of students, decided to take lethal action. The school violence data on shootings is so widespread that it is difficult to get a clear and reliable figure on the number of acts of violence committed in schools.
According to an April 20, 2019 article “20 Years After Columbine, Schools Have Gotten Safer. But Fears Have Only Grown,” there were 37 active-shooter incidents between 2000 and 2017. According to a Nov. 17, 2019 article published by CNN and authored by Elizabeth Wolfe and Christina Walker, in the first 46 weeks of 2019, there have been 45 school shootings with 32 occurring at schools serving the K-12 population. According to the Gun Violence Archive, the total number of mass shootings (including school settings) has already reached 366 as of November 14. While the data is both staggering and frightening, the New York Times article cites experts who caution schools who overprepare for mass shootings to, instead, focus on more frequent and typical threats to safety, including “mental health problems, family trauma, severe weather, traffic accidents on or near the school zone, and child abductions.” The article details how schools must operate within a finite budget; therefore, when additional funds are spent to deter school violence, funds are rarely available for proactive measures to provide support for additional counselors, nurses, or academic enrichment.
Discussions on school safety today typically elicit strong responses. Based on the data that is available, clearly parents and students and educators alike have cause for concern. Parents send their children off to school each day hoping that they learn something valuable, are not targeted by harassment, and that their school will be one that remains unscathed by the widespread evidence of school violence across the nation. In many ways, the fear and anxiety generated by what has been witnessed has only served to exacerbate student stresses. In addition to being stressed by academic expectations, social acclimation efforts, and the overall trials of growing up, students also now experience the worries of ‘what if.’ What if there was a shooter? What if he really means what he just posted? What would I, could I, should I do? Perhaps it’s time that the nation, collectively, for the betterment of all society, begins to own the responsibility for student safety.
Schools, already stressed to work within their limited budgets to educate students cannot be expected to effectively meet their charter and simultaneously establish a lockdown facility aligned with a functional correctional institution to keep the students safe. Working together with other agencies to better identify and support children and families in crisis, to help all students realize a safe and secure environment both at home and at school may very well be one of the best ways to realize a safer environment for all. Imagining a nation where students go to school each day, focused on learning, unburdened by concerns for their safety, supported by their families and communities, perhaps this should truly be the American dream.