What Will Make Schools Safer?


The spate of school shootings in recent years, including the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., has prompted Congress to give the Justice Department an unprecedented budget that may reach $150 million to improve school safety.

Will all of this spending help reduce school violence?

Research shows incidents of school violence are on the rise. Following nearly two decades of steady decline, the number of victims of school violence increased about 10 percent from 2010 to 2012, and the rate was highest among students ages 12 to 14, according to a June 10 joint report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics.

So far, Congress has allocated $75 million to the National Institute of Justice's (NIJ) Comprehensive School Safety Initiative and an additional $75 million is proposed. One program, “Developing Knowledge about What Works to Make Schools Safe,” is awarding $47 million in grants to teams of school districts and independent researchers to launch pilot programs, which would then be assessed to identify models that successfully reduce school violence.

Proposals can be submitted through July 10. Awards, which could range from about $500,000 to $5 million, will be disbursed this fall.

“Part of it is trying to understand how might schools be unsafe, whether children are being injured, at what rate, and what the causes are that we need to worry about,” Greg Ridgeway, acting director of NIJ, told The Crime Report.

The grant program is asking participants to look at a variety of factors that make schools safe, including behavioral and mental health, security and preparedness, and climate and culture. Rigorous, evidence-based research and analysis are a critical part of the process.

“The most enduring aspect of this program will be the learning component—at the end of this we will learn whether having public safety officials at a school will make schools safer, or whether additional mental health services make schools safer,” Ridgeway said.

“We have to infer that the kinds of things that will reduce the rate of injury due to violence are the same kinds of things that will reduce the risk for much more serious events,” such as school shootings.

Supporters say the grant program is necessary to address critical school safety issues.

“One of the best things we can do is seek out a broad-based set of perspectives” to make schools safer, said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Southern California.

Approximately 46 million out of 76 million children in the United States can expect to be exposed to violence, crime, abuse, and psychological trauma, according to the 2012 “Report of the Attorney General's National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence,” Stephens noted.

“Where I see the research going is looking at how to intervene early to make a positive difference in young people's lives,” he added.

But not everyone thinks this grant program is the best allocation of government funds.

“The last thing we need is more federal money going to another study or research project about school safety,” said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.

Lessons from Columbine

Stakeholders already know what makes schools safe, Trump argues, in large part due to lessons learned from the 1999 Columbine High School attack in Colorado. Best practices include “adults building relationships with kids, improved counseling and mental health support, regular planning and cross training with first responders, diversified lockdown, evacuation, fire and other drills, and proactive communications strategy with parents and the community,” according to Trump.

What's needed, he says, is sustained funding for such programs.

Others question the grant program's ability to test whether a school safety method is truly successful.

“One of the problems in launching this effort as a research program is the inherent difficulty of being able to adequately assess the value of any of the proposed approaches,” said criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University and chair of the Science Advisory Board of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs.

“We can expect a variety of proposed solutions, ranging from the politically impossible (e.g., limiting access to firearms for people under 30), to the even more risky (arming all teachers), to the disruptive (putting all students through a TSA-like screen daily).

“But because the risk of a shooting in any particular school is very low (despite the numbers we have been seeing lately, they are spread over a hundred thousand schools), it will be very difficult to ever know whether something works or not.”

Blumstein said this was because “however senseless it may be, it is very unlikely to be followed by a shooting event in the school that applies it. So we will have many 'successes' with no meaning of usefulness or effectiveness.”

But some experts say that school violence isn't just about school shootings: It's about pervasive, lower level acts of violence that harm students on a regular basis. And they note that reducing such incidents also reduces the chances of more serious violent events.

Exposure to Bullying

“Data shows that approximately 25 percent of kids are involved with bullying across the nation,” said Beverly Kingston, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance study show that nationwide, 19.6 percent of students had been bullied on school property during the 12 months before the survey. A National Institutes of Health study on the prevalence of bullying showed that 29.9 percent of students sampled were involved in bullying either as the bully, the victim, or both.

Using a rigorous data-driven approach and evidence-based programs, “we can get to the root cause of lower-level behavior problems whenever possible and prevent those kinds of things from even escalating” to the level of a school shooting, Kingston said.

But that sort of research-based approach takes time—two to four years to get a program up and running—”there's no quick fix,” Kingston said.

Warning signs are often present in children, however, and one way to help schools detect problems early is through violence screening tools. Kingston works with a physician who has designed one to assess risks, such as kids exposed to trauma or violence, who can then be referred to appropriate services for help.

Another early intervention strategy that Kingston calls a “superfood for kids” is “social and emotional learning.” There are social-emotional learning programs that have proven results using curriculum to teach children how to manage their emotions and develop empathy starting as early as preschool and continuing through high school, she said.

For any evidence-based program to be successful, it needs to be implemented with fidelity by following the specified guidelines, supported with necessary infrastructure, and assessed with rigorous data-driven evaluations, Kingston added.

“We can do a much better job with the kids that are hurting and there are a lot of kids that are hurting in our schools,” Kingston said.

Deirdre Bannon is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. She welcomes comments from readers.

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