Massachusetts schools have been waiting a long time for specific recommendations from the state on how best to fortify their campuses against potential attacks. So it came as a relief earlier this month when Governor Patrick announced the formation of a 20-member task force on school safety.
Such attacks are rare. And they take wildly different forms. Recently, for example, a 12-year-old student in Roswell, N.M., turned a shotgun on his classmates, wounding two of them. Other attacks have resulted in unthinkable carnage, including the 2012 murder of 26 elementary school students and staffers in Newtown, Conn., by a deranged gunman.
Every school in Massachusetts takes some precautions, which include security cameras, locked doors, sign-in sheets, metal detectors, staff IDs, and panic buttons. Some no longer allow voting in school buildings. Is that prudent or excessive? School officials in both urban and rural areas will be looking for the task force to weigh in on such specific issues. While everyone understands that one safety plan won’t fit every situation, there is still a need for unambiguous guidelines.
Safety experts, including local police departments, are split on how teachers and students should react if they find themselves under attack. Some argue that the best response is to alert police and hide until help arrives. Other believe that fleeing, barricading doors, and even throwing objects at an attacker — depending on the situation — offer a better chance at survival. Some school districts in Massachusetts, including Canton, already have brought in police or safety experts to train school personnel in such proactive measures.
It would be easy for the task force to punt on this controversy and focus on more technological strategies. But it would be irresponsible. School officials are struggling with the issue of whether to adopt a passive approach or a more active one — especially on the question of whether to flee or hide. The task force needs to wrestle with this issue in particular and offer clear advice.
Families and educators need to know that violent deaths at schools account for fewer than 1 percent of homicides and suicides among children ages 5 to 18. But when they happen, they traumatize not only individual families but entire communities. The task force is performing vital work. And it needs to be done before the start of the next school year.
School principals and teachers can be trusted to figure out how and when to introduce these subjects to children and families. That is their area of expertise. What they need from the task force is clear advice on the best strategies to stay safe.