Part 2 of my summer series, “How can we fix US schools?” is here, and this time I want to focus on one of the things that is on everyone’s mind, safety. With the events that ended the school year and the seemingly endless parade of school shootings, it seems like something that will never be very far from the conversation. It also doesn’t seem like real actionable steps from the government will address it anytime soon. Like most things, schools are going to need to get creative.
The key question here is, “How do we provide a secure safe learning environment, without making schools fortresses and wasting millions of dollars on it?” Inherently, that’s a tough question to answer because you are toeing a fine line. We have to do everything we can to protect students, but we also want these environments to be open community centers where children can grow and play while parents participate in those proceedings. There is also no room for error when it comes to funding. We can’t pour tax dollars into security measures that may or may not work while the instructional environment is already suffering.
Before we get into what I think may help here, let’s dispel some notions that most certainly will not. Things like arming teachers, fencing, armed security guards, and only one door in and out are not solutions. In fact, most would cause additional issues.
Let’s start with arming teachers. Almost to a person, I have not seen any teacher support this notion. They know the reality of it, and that reality is incredibly dark. In most cases, school shooters have been or are students in the school they are attacking. By arming that teacher, you are asking them to take the life of that student in an instant. That is a terrible choice, and I would think many will get harmed in the process of trying to talk that student down. Any teacher worth their salt also knows the training for this would be terrible. The money just would not be there to make it long enough and worthwhile enough. Finally, almost every teacher has set down their keys, glasses, coffee cups in places in the school building and had to find them. What happens when that is a firearm?
I think the other things that are brought up are at best putting a band-aid on a bigger issue. While some fencing could help, you also want schools to be a place of community, and that fencing could quickly go overboard. I know the feeling I get seeing barbed wire schools in other countries, and I don’t want to see that here. Armed security / police in a school have seemed to help in some instances, but they can also be very negative. John Oliver did a great piece on Last Week Tonight that you can find HERE on the negative impact that school police can bring. With that being said, I do think school police officers need to be there (I have known some great ones), but that process needs to be thought through. Last, but certainly not least, the one door in and out theory (as expressed by Ted Cruz), is just unrealistic. We want kids to be outside, playing, having fun, and doing recess. They need that movement. We just need to figure out how to make it secure.
So, what can we do? Seeing many schools over the years, I think it needs to be a combination of a student centered and technologically driven approach. The student centered piece needs to be more important, and it needs to start with a focus on anti-bullying efforts and counseling. We need to try and reach students who may turn violent before it starts, and showing them effort and love may get us there.
When you look at the whole of individuals committing school violence, what are the common themes? They are bullied. They feel alone. They are angry. We have to try and lower those temperatures before they even start, and there are things we can do to do it. We could make a renewed push into preventing bullying, and change the way we discipline students who are caught doing it. What if we made them do an act of kindness in those instances? What if we tried to get to the heart of the matter of why they are bullying? Could we stop things in their tracks?
A renewed focus on mental health is of course needed to. The problem with it now in schools is that many counselors don’t even have time to focus on it. When you think about counselors at the high school level, what do most of them do? They do college admissions. What if we split that off into separate roles and had counselors who could actually focus on mental health? It might make a world of difference. There would also need to be a renewed focus for them on how to deal with those issues, but just freeing them up is a great start.
From the technological way to keep folks safe, it is all going to boil down to money. Changing this kind of infrastructure takes it and are lawmakers willing to do it. While I am no expert in the field, could simple finger print oriented locks help? Many colleges use them to restrict access to things like athletic facilities, so I would imagine it may be possible. If staff can be part of those locks easily, they could come and go from the building with ease and never have to prop doors or mistakenly leave one unlocked. I think most teachers would gladly trade putting their finger down coming in from recess over messing with their keys. Doors could even be programmed to unlock at certain times to enhance school movement (Many high schools are structured with outside movement), and then lock as soon as that movement is over. You could even program in different access for school events which gives schools an even better approach on what is going on in their classroom.
Another simple tech idea to help is adding an alarm bell to doors that are not supposed to be open during the day. This sounds really annoying, but hear me out. If there is an alarm, teachers in that area know that the door is likely open, and they would be highly motivated to turn off that annoying sound. It doesn’t have to be something incredibly loud, just more a reminder to close up that door.
You could even get more fancy with the technology side of it as well. I have no idea how much they cost, but what if even just high schools added the security scanners that places like Disney and Six Flags have? I am talking about the ones where you just walk through and then they pull you out of line. While not perfect (Disney still does bag searches), they are less intrusive than a metal detector. You also almost forget it’s there unless you are stopped, so it takes that fortress level down.
I am sure there are hundreds and thousands of other solutions out there, but hopefully lawmakers at some point can take even more additional steps. I think the key here is we have to remember how this additional security and safety affects students. If it affects them negatively, it’s probably not a good solution.