This article discusses public school security in the United States. The subject of school security has become a hot topic in light of school shootings and a rise in violence in American public schools. Data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that there were over 1.4 million nonfatal crimes on school grounds in 2004, as well as 28 school-associated violent deaths. In light of well-publicized school shootings since the late twentieth century, as well as the rise of global terrorism, parents, educators and politicians have sought ways to improve school safety through comprehensive school safety plans. Conflict resolution has been a popular means by which students are taught to resolve their differences through dialogue instead of violence, but emerging research on the positive safety record of public charter schools indicates that reducing school violence may require more grassroots community activism and fewer government regulations.
Keywords Conflict Resolution; Public Charter Schools; Safety Plans; School-Associated Violent Deaths; School Safety; School Security; School Shootings; School Violence
Statistics published in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice paint a sobering picture of life at school for the nations' more than 50 million public school students. According to the government researchers, there were 31 school-associated violent deaths of students, staff, and other people from July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011. Of these deaths, 25 were homicides and 6 were suicides; 11 of the homicides and 3 of the suicides were of youth ages 5 to 18. Furthermore, in 2011, students ages 12 to 18 were victims of about 1.25 million nonfatal crimes at school, including about 649,000 thefts and 598,000 violent crimes such as assault (Robers, Kemp, & Truman, 2013, p. iii). The data further indicate that in 2011, 49 out of 1,000 students were victims of a crime at school (p. iv).
The problem of school safety isn't limited to students. During the 2007–08 school year, 5 percent of city school teachers, 4 percent of suburban teachers, and 3 percent of rural teachers reported being physically attacked by students (Robers, Kemp, & Truman, 2013, p. iv). One teacher summed up her experiences in an urban public school this way:
“I started student-teaching filled with idealism, but soon my own thinking ran along the lines of locks and chains. In one month, a student threatened to kill his teacher over a quiz grade. Another student took a bat to windshields in the faculty parking lot. And when I asked the lead teacher why our classroom always had an odor, she explained that while a sub was on duty, a student had urinated on the carpet. Additionally, drug deals and violence in the halls were routine” (Schaller, 2007, p. 6).
Such violence against teachers and students prompted State Senator Bob Beers of Nevada to draft a bill in late 2006 that would allow the state's teachers to carry guns in the classroom. While the proposal was voted down in committee in April 2007 due to fears that it would put teachers in the role of law enforcement officials, supporters noted that Israel's legislative body passed a similar law. "They started allowing school teachers and administrators to be armed," said Beers, "and they have not had a single incidence of gun violence on campus since" (quoted in McCarthy, 2006).
Given these school safety statistics, as well as the series of high-profile school shootings from Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 to Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012, it's hardly surprising that school safety and security have become top-of-the-agenda items for many public school districts across the United States. Addington et al. (2002) describe a study of student feelings of safety at school, both before and after the Columbine shooting, which revealed that the violence in Colorado had an impact on perceptions of school safety across the nation. While the majority of students did not report experiencing fear at school before or after Columbine, students were more likely to report being afraid of harm or attack at school after the shootings than before (Addington et al., 2002, p. 77).
While parents, teachers, students and political leaders continue to try to understand and address the roots of school violence, they are simultaneously pressing for practical measures to make public schools a safe environment for teaching and learning. These school safety measures range from the practical to the technological:
“Between the 1999–2000 and 2009–10 school years, there was an increase in the percentage of public schools reporting the use of the following safety and security measures: controlled access to the building during school hours (from 75 to 92 percent); controlled access to school grounds during school hours (from 34 to 46 percent); faculty required to wear badges or picture IDs (from 25 to 63 percent); the use of one or more security cameras to monitor the school (from 19 to 61 percent); the provision of telephones in most classrooms (from 45 to 74 percent); and the requirement that students wear uniforms (from 12 to 19 percent)” (Robers, Kemp, & Truman, 2013, p. viii).
While these security measures have become a fact of life in twenty-first century American schools, it is too soon to tell whether they have begun to change the perception of public schools as vectors for violence. What does seem clear is that, when it comes to perceptions of school security, there is a sharp difference between those of school officials on one hand and parents and students on the other. A 2007 questionnaire posed to 10,000 superintendents indicated that 71 percent feel their schools have adequate security measures in place, whereas 29 percent do not. However, a national Harris Poll of more than 600 parents and 1,100 students concluded that 65 percent of youth ages 8 to 18 and 77 percent of parents say it is "extremely likely" or "very likely" that an intruder could enter their schools ("Fast Facts," 2007, p. 19).
In light of the widespread safety concerns expressed by students and their parents, reducing the level of school violence and simultaneously increasing public confidence in school safety will no doubt remain major challenges for politicians, educators, parents and community leaders for the foreseeable future.
Developing a School Security Plan
Experts agree that the best first step to ensure school safety is a formal security plan. This plan should articulate clear policies and procedures for every security-related event — from identifying visitors and establishing penalties for bringing weapons to school to plans for a response to a severe weather event or terrorist attack. In most respects, a school security plan should be a subset of a broader emergency response plan.
The need for a clear, comprehensive security plan is obvious: while there were 224 violent deaths in schools between 1999 and 2005 (Zalud, 2006, p. 10), in that same time period there have been hundreds of thousands of assaults, instances of bullying, rape and gang violence, to say nothing of illegal drug use. A school security plan should articulate the school district standards regarding such behavior, as well as the consequences when students violate the policy. As with all policies, the greater acceptance by parents, school officials and local law enforcement, the better. A recent article in Security magazine (Zalud, 2006) cites creating the best possible school environment. Security experts agree that there is a diversity of policies, procedures and technologies being applied to secure schools. Certified safety plans should be created and tested and solid, informative but non-alarming communication should be used. According to the article, a new generation of kids will understand safety drills as well as fire drills (Zalud, 2006).
Parents also have a role to play in the creation or refinement of school safety plans. School security expert Kenneth R. Trump offers ten tips for parents who want to assess the security of their child's school:...
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