Why 2018 was a Deadly Year in School Safety

Picture of Todd Miller By Todd Miller

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School SafetyThe Parkland and Santa Fe school shootings contributed to 2018 being one of the deadliest years in school safety ever and prompted a massive increase in precautionary lockdowns. However, there are concerns the precautions being taken could exacerbate future rates of violence-based fatalities on school campuses.

2018 was a deadly year in school safety. Despite a decline in reported accidental deaths, violence-based fatalities on school campuses attributable to homicides, suicides, and legal intervention (involving a law enforcement officer) reached their highest level since 2007 - the year of the Virginia Tech shooting. The primary causes of the unwelcome statistic were the school shootings at Parkland and Santa Fe.

In the aftermath of Parkland and Santa Fe, a number of theories have been suggested about why 2018 was a deadly year in school safety. Some experts blame the media coverage of Columbine as the foundation for two decades of escalating copycat shootings; whereas others align the increase in violence-based fatalities with a perceived increase in pressure on young people to succeed.

Other theories include the “garbage in - garbage out” world of social media giving children unrealistic expectations of adulthood; and, when they cannot cope with reality, inadequate access to mental health services. The lack of mental health services, according to some observers, is responsible for students developing a “culture of victimhood” which results in the violent expression of personal feelings.

The viability of these theories as standalone reasons why 2018 was a deadly year in school safety is debatable. However, it is likely elements of each have contributed to the situation we have now - where many schools have been turned into fortresses and lockdowns are initiated at an average of 16 per day. It has been reported more than 4 million children experienced a lockdown in 2017/18.

Report May Underestimate the Scale of Lockdowns

The figure of 4 million children experiencing a lockdown in school year 2017/2018 was first reported by the Washington Post. It followed an extensive review and analysis of more than twenty thousand news items and data from school districts in thirty-one of the country’s largest cities. According to the research, the actual number of on-campus events in which a firearm was discharged (25) was the highest in the post-Columbine era and exposed more than 25,000 students to on-campus gun violence.

Analysts concede that their final figure of 6,200 lockdowns within a year could be an underestimate, as some school districts do not record lockdowns, while others record them as “building mode” or “sheltering in place”. However, what is possibly more concerning is that 1 million of the 4 million children that experienced a lockdown in 2017/18 attended elementary school and - among that group - at least 220,000 were in the kindergarten or prekindergarten age group.

After the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, schools across the country began holding active shooter drills which, in some circumstances, involve an adult walking through the school pretending to shoot students. According to Emma Fridel - a doctoral student at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University - there is no evidence these exercises help protect students. “These measures just serve to alarm students and make them think it’s something that’s common,” she said.

Colleagues in the mental health profession agree. They have raised concerns that, although lockdowns save lives in real attacks, frequent precautionary lockdowns can inflict psychological damage on children who are convinced they are in danger. According to Steven Schlozman - a professor at the Harvard Medical School - children in proximity to frightening circumstances are at risk of developing lasting symptoms. “These include everything from worsening academic and social progression to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, post-traumatic symptomatology and substance abuse,” he said.

>>Read the Webinar Recap - Preparing for the New Climate in School Emergencies

Why are there so Many Lockdowns in Schools?

The staggering volume of lockdowns is attributable to school administrators acting on every threat of a school shooting as if it were genuine. Naturally they are right to take this approach because the cost of ignoring such threats could result in very tragic events as was demonstrated at Parkland, where - according to an opinion piece in The Hill - the perpetrator "allegedly did everything except call law enforcement with the exact date, time and location of his intended massacre.”  

Related Article: Why We Should Consider This Emergency Management Process for  Ending School Violence

Part of the problem is an increase in hoax threats. In the weeks following the Parkland school shooting, the number of hoax threats rocketed. Researchers from the Washington Post recorded thirty-three separate incidents across the country in a single February day, and it has been estimated law enforcement agencies investigated three times as many hoax threats in 2018 than they did in previous years - prompting the FBI to launch its #thinkbeforeyoupost campaign.

The problem is made worse by schools being placed on precautionary lockdown simply due to law enforcement activity in the area. In one case reported by the Washington Post, children were kept in full lockdown for hours due to an off-campus carjacking without any information about what was going on. A psychologist who subsequently visited the school commented the effect on the children was similar to what she had seen after an actual school shooting - “like kids we've seen from major crises”.

Concerns exist that turning schools into fortresses and locking them down at the lowest level of threat is feeding the “culture of victimhood” and could exacerbate future rates of violence-based fatalities on school campuses. As one mental health professional commented: “I’m not a big fan of making schools look like fortresses because they send a message to kids that the bad guy is coming for you - if we’re surrounding you with security, you must have a bull’s-eye on your back.” 

There is No One-Size-Fits-All Solution - but Technology Can Help

If the current situation further deteriorates and the culture of victimhood is allowed to magnify, 2018 may be looked back upon as a relatively good year for school safety compared to what might happen. Unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Active shooter drills and armed SROs did not prevent the Santa Fe tragedy. The deterrent of criminal penalties has not stopped hoaxers from threatening violence on social media; and school mental health services are so overwhelmed dealing with students´ mental health symptoms that there are no resources left to tackle the causes.

Eliminating fear from the lives of schoolchildren is difficult, but there are ways in which technology can help. In Michigan, for example, the state has implemented the OK2Say service which enables students to submit anonymous tips via a smartphone app that also provides resources for student mental health. Although provision of the service has resulted in Michigan becoming the state with the highest recorded rate of school-based threats, the intelligence gathered from the anonymous tip service helps school administrators make better-informed decisions about whether a full lockdown is necessary.

When a lockdown is necessary, school districts in Michigan use mass notification systems to keep students, teachers, and parents informed of what is happening, why it is happening, and how long a lockdown is expected to last. Bill DeFrance - superintendent of Eaton Rapids Schools - told Fox 47 News “the alert software is an amazing tool, but knowing when to utilize it is the challenge”. In addition, sixteen of seventeen school districts in Eaton County have distributed Panic Button apps to faculty staff in order to accelerate crisis response when an emergency occurs without warning.

Read More: Why Every School Should Have A Panic Button App System

The benefits of using technology to reduce the number of full lockdowns, to keep people informed, and to accelerate crisis response when an emergency occurs without warning are that children are less exposed to the triggers responsible for feeding the culture of victimhood. Instead of exacerbating future rates of violence-based fatalities on school campuses, technology can help mitigate them while installing the message in students that on-campus violence and threats of violence is unacceptable.

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Written by Todd Miller

Todd Miller manages all field operations at Rave. Prior to joining Rave, Todd managed the self-service consulting Practice at Oracle where he was responsible for the delivery of customized software solutions for clients in North America, supporting millions of users. At Oracle he was awarded recognition as a member of Oracle’s top 10% in Consulting. Todd’s previous experience includes leading consulting teams for Siebel and edocs in North America, Europe, and Australia. Todd is a graduate of Babson College.

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