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OPINION

The new Sandy Hook school offers lesson on safety

Security can be strengthened in new schools without leaving students in fear.

The new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., July 29, 2016.NYT

The December 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six educators, is arguably the most impactful school shooting in our nation’s history. Last Wednesday, on the day marking 10 years since the tragedy, I paid a visit to the recently completed Sandy Hook Memorial. A trumpeter played somber melodies while a woman held a sign offering hugs to those needing one. Mourners silently read the victims’ names, inscribed in the concrete wall that surrounds a circular flowing stream adorned with floral bouquets.

The primary purpose of my venture, however, was to tour the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, a nearly $50 million facility that is both aesthetically welcoming yet well-protected from attack. Designed to reflect a treehouse motif, the school features bullet-proof glass exteriors and doors, window slats that allow sunlight but limit viewing from the outside, perimeter fencing and landscaping that discourage intruders, impenetrable safe rooms, and a curved main hallway that would greatly diminish an armed assailant’s line of sight. Importantly, these innovations allow the school to look like a comfortable and cheerful place for growth and learning.

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Unfortunately, many schools across America look more like fortresses. They inadvertently promote fear by employing conspicuous security measures, such as metal detectors and intrusive surveillance cameras, and some school systems require students to have clear backpacks. Worse, some schools stage unannounced active shooter drills or upgrade their realism by use of fake blood and having someone dressed for battle roam the hallways as the children shelter in place — exercises that have been shown to be traumatizing. The message sent to the students is loud and clear: Beware, the bad guy is aiming to get you!

According to a Gallup survey in August, 44 percent of parents are concerned for their children’s safety while at school, the highest level since 2001, and 20 percent report that their children have expressed worries about school safety. While understandable, this level of fear is disproportionate to the actual risk, despite Uvalde, Parkland, and other recent school shootings.

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The often-cited statistics on school shootings are alarming but misleading. For example, Education Week has tallied 49 school shootings resulting in injury or death so far in 2022 — the most in five years. However, the overwhelming majority of these attacks — over 80 percent — took place outside of the school itself, including nearly 30 percent in school parking lots. Most would not have been prevented by the variety of security measures employed to prevent or limit in-school shootings.

Statistically, active shooter events inside K-12 schools are quite rare. In the 10 years since Sandy Hook, there have been 30 active shooters claiming a total of 77 lives, with nearly two-thirds of the fatalities linked to the three shootings with double-digit death tolls. In terms of risk, the annual average of three active shooter events is out of the 130,000 schools in America. Also, the half-dozen students killed annually, on average, is out of a total enrollment of more than 50 million.

To a parent, one death of a child is one too many, and so the threat, however small, cannot be ignored. School administrators need to be proactive, yet careful not to create panic. For example, the style of active shooter drills should involve more talk and less action. Teachers can advise their students on the appropriate steps in case of an attack, such as barricading the door and sitting silently in the corner, without having students practice that — just as flight attendants instruct airline passengers without actually staging a drill.

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The new Sandy Hook school offers important lessons on safety. Although perhaps not feasible for existing schools to reshape their hallways into an arc or to replace doors and windows with fortified versions, there are some low-cost options for unobtrusive security. For under $50,000, for example, tiny wireless acoustic sensors can be installed that alert police to a shooting and map out the precise location of the assailant, thereby enabling an efficient and potentially life-saving response. Other best practices, such as keeping hallways free of trash receptacles, display cases, and other impediments to an evacuation, can be achieved at little or no cost.

The “nothing to fear but fear itself” mantra is relevant for a prudent approach to school security. Schools are quite safe, and innovations like the ones at Sandy Hook can make them safer. But it is equally important not to transform schools into fortresses and raise student fears in an attempt to keep them safe.

James Alan Fox is a professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University and author of “Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College.” Follow him of Twitter @jamesalanfox.