How to Talk about School Safety after Sandy Hook
The Sandy Hook tragedy made plain that evil has few limits and that no place, including our schools, can be rendered completely safe. But despite that, or perhaps because of it, many school systems are grappling with how to better protect their students.
My kids’ school system is no different, and has an admirable record of establishing programs and policies that protect students in thoughtful, progressive ways. But after Sandy Hook, our school system sought to do more, and held a meeting this month to give parents a voice in moving forward.
How they started the discussion, however, was exactly backward, compelling me to offer some suggestions on how school systems should facilitate the school-community dialogue post-Sandy Hook. As simple as it sounds, these discussions must start with the facts. Let’s look at what happened instead.
The school’s meeting with parents went horribly off the rails when they asked us to vote, by text message, on the most important threats to our elementary, middle, and high schools. For each level of schooling, we were given six threats—active shooter, terroristic act, sexual predator, kidnapping, enraged visitor, and aggressive behavior—and were asked to rate which was most likely.
Let that sink in. The school system thought that the way to begin a discussion with a fearful, mourning community was to give them a list of their worst fears and force them to pick one that was most likely.
What’s worse is that the school is asking for opinions when we have facts. We know, within a small bound of statistical uncertainty, how often these things actually happen in schools. Why would you ask parents—who have no reason to know these esoteric statistics—what the facts are? Why then would you use those uniformed opinions to engage parents in a dialogue about their children’s safety?
It turned out, of course, that these parents did not know the facts. For elementary school, a majority picked kidnapping as the biggest threat. In fact, in a country of 315 million people, fewer than 200 children were abducted by strangers in 2011. Few, if any, were taken directly from a school building. We are worried about the wrong things.
How many active shooter events occurred at a school in the United States last year? How many terroristic acts (whatever that means and it could mean anything) occurred? The answer to all of these questions is almost none—and that should frame our post Sandy Hook dialogue. This is not to say that schools shouldn’t aim to protect students from these incredibly painful, if rare, tragedies. But a discussion of school safety should be driven by the facts.
We should start by talking honestly about the violence that exists in our schools today. How many times were the police called to the system’s schools? How many assaults took place? How many guns were confiscated? What are the actual threats to students at each level of schooling? In some places it will be between youth violence or gangs while in others bullying will be the most serious threat.
Once the facts are established, then it is fair to ask if the school system should address those issues or if it should focus on protecting against the next Sandy Hook.
And on that threat, the checklist of questions is relatively short. Does the school have a single point of entry? Is the entry point fortified? Can it be better fortified? Does the school work closely with local police? Do the police have blueprints, access codes, and emergency communication mechanisms? Does the school have passive systems for teachers to communicate alarms to the central office and vice versa (at Sandy Hook, using the PA system to notify the school of an active shooter was smart and brave—but was it efficient)? Are the students drilled sufficiently (but not to the point of becoming fearful) in evacuation procedures?
Additional steps can be taken to slow down the shooter as much as possible. A panicked administrator seeing an approaching gunman is not in the best position to make clear-headed decisions. Closed-circuit television monitored at the central administrative office can provide others with a view of the emergency situation. Electromagnetic doors can be installed to seal students into their classrooms. Each of these measures comes at a cost. Just like using classroom time to teach civility and life skills comes at the cost of teaching English and math, our decisions about school safety infrastructure also mean fewer resources for other, higher probability, threats to students.
These are tough questions, and while engaging the public is the right place to start, to find the answers, the discussions must start with the facts.