A Guide To Student Security In K-12 Schools

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath

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school safety -1In October of 2019, officials at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe High School in Texas disclosed the devastating long term impact of school shootings on campus in a report published in Politico. Following deadly mass shootings at both high schools last year, administrators reported lower academic performance among students, and increased rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The report is a reminder that student security in schools is a high-stakes safety matter, and every step of emergency preparedness, from violence prevention and mitigation to mental health resources following a crisis, will impact students' lives. 

Many safety managers struggle to define school security risks, as national data on violent incidents on campus can often be difficult to decipher. Researchers have struggled to produce reliable school violence statistics for K-12 schools over the last decade. The Dickey Amendment prevents federal funding from advocating or promoting gun control, and though Congress clarified that the CDC can conduct gun violence research despite the provision, it hasn't earmarked additional funding for the purpose. Meanwhile, non-profit or research organizations differ in their definitions of violence or a mass shooting, making a reliable metric difficult to come by, according to NPR. 

For example, Mother Jones’ open source database suggests there have been 11 mass shootings (where four or more people died) since the attack at Columbine High School in 1999, and reports that 134 children and adults died in these attacks. In contrast, Everytown For Gun Safety tracks gunfire on school grounds, reporting that there were over 76 incidents of gunfire in 2019, resulting in 11 deaths (including 3 suicide deaths in which no additional person was harmed) and 46 injuries. 

Despite unreliable data in violence statistics, nearly every study points to increased security risks in K-12 schools across the United States. Local safety managers must collaborate with students, teachers, and staff to create a comprehensive safety plan. Often, emergency preparedness means leveraging a variety of tools and strategies to bolster student security in schools, and each community will need to craft a unique  plan. 

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How To Prioritize Student Security In Schools 

In 2019, a comprehensive safety plan can help identify major threats ahead of strategic planning for student security in schools. In order to decide which safety resources are appropriate or necessary, safety managers must first identify potential risks on campus. Plans to identify threats in a community have been the source of controversy - social media monitoring, for example, raises concerns about privacy and risks pushing students to make online interactions more private.

Related Blog: Is K-12 School Surveillance Going Too Far?

The United States Secret Service encourages K-12 schools to instead implement a tip-line which can be used to share and collect information of potential threats. An anonymous two-way tip texting system allows students to reach out to school administrators or local law enforcement without fear of retaliation, which can be valuable to collecting data from students who may be hesitant to come forward with information overheard in the community or spotted online. 

An additional consideration safety managers should make in threat assessment practices is examining state and local gun laws. Lack of federal regulation of firearms means that every state will have different policy regarding background checks or red flag laws. Furthermore, since the most common source of guns used in school violence incidents come from the home or homes of family or friends, it’s important for teams identifying threats to know if at-risk students have access to firearms. Everytown For Gun Safety recommends schools use discrete practices to solicit information, including talking to parents or guardians to get a better sense of household life.

Focusing on mental health resources is another best-practice for promoting student security in schools. Communities should invest in counselors and social workers in K-12 schools for a variety of reasons - schools with comprehensive mental health services see improved attendance rates, higher academic achievement, higher graduation rates as well as lower rates of suspensions, expulsions, or other disciplinary incidents which contribute to the school to prison pipeline, as per the ACLU. According to the "Cops and No Counselors" study published by the ACLU, data also suggests that school-based mental health services not only promote a positive school environment and improve outcomes for students, but can also improve school safety.

Related Blog: Addressing the High School Mental Health Crisis

Implementing Security Tools and Building Hardening 

By any metric, gun violence is on the rise across the United States. In addition to identifying potential threats and allocating significant funding for mental health programming, administrators should evaluate security protocol on campus. Every community will have different needs, but hardening buildings, implementing common-sense physical security tools, such as cameras, and leveraging technology can all contribute to student security in schools.

Administrators, teachers, and staff should collaborate with local officials to determine which basic security upgrades might be viable in the community, and how these strategies can be incorporated into a basic security plan. Physical security is one of the most critical aspects of a K-12 campus safety plan. The most important physical security measure is access control at the front door, which can include a gate system to gain access to campus as well as an ID Tap-In on the door. All other doors around campuses, such as back entrances, should also remain locked during school hours and only be accessible via ID badge. Another access control tool which can make a difference are internal door locks on classrooms, as these allow teachers to lock a classroom from the inside. By limiting access, administrators and teachers can deter an active assailant until law enforcement are able to arrive on campus and neutralize the potential threat. Together, access control tools work well in a lockdown situation, and bolster security without compromising a welcoming school environment. 

Related Blog: Are There Holes in Your School Safety Plan?

A panic button app can be a powerful tool for K-12 teachers, administrators, and staff to manage student security in schools. The app allows the user to clearly communicate with 9-1-1 and first responders, as well as on-site personnel, all with the touch of a button. The panic button also communicates critical data to response teams, such as the nature of the emergency, whether it is an active assailant, fire, medical concern, or another crisis, as well as location data. Location-based alerting, as well as the capability to simultaneously notify the school community of the nature of the emergency situation, can also result in faster, more effective emergency response.

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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