IN AUGUST, yet again, headlines were dominated by the words "school shooter." Luckily, this time it didn't end in tragedy: Bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff became a national hero when she talked a mentally ill young man with an AK-47-style rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition into giving himself up before he harmed anyone at her elementary school in Decatur, Georgia. But the situation could have ended very differently, as dozens of others in this country in the past decade and a half have.
School security has improved since the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, got the nation's attention in 1999, but cracks remain. It's believed that 20-year-old gunman Michael Brandon Hill entered the Georgia school by slipping in behind a parent who was entering or exiting. And last December, Adam Lanza shot his way though glass at the entrance to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, before killing 26, most of them children. That event prompted a renewed emphasis on security and prevention, says Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting company in Cleveland.
"For the five years prior to Sandy Hook," Trump says, "security fell to the back burner. The hot-button issue was bullying." Now schools around Greater Boston are joining a nationwide trend toward beefing up safety. Exterior doors are locked and IDs are often required to enter. Lock-down and shelter-in-place drills are commonplace. School districts like Foxborough and Walpole are on track to install surveillance cameras in common areas and outdoors; others are looking into covering lower-floor windows with film that lessens breakage and penetration by bullets. Some schools, including many in the Boston Public Schools system, require everyone entering to pass through a metal detector. Not a few are hiring armed "school resource officers," usually members of the local police force trained in community policing. And Concord, Franklin, North Andover, Wellesley, and Winchester are considering joining Canton, Hopedale, and Wilmington in their use of the controversial ALICE program. The acronym stands for alert, lock-down, inform, counter, evacuate. The protocol encourages teachers and children to yell, move around, and throw things at intruders in an effort to make accurate shooting more difficult.
But what effect do these sometimes very visible changes have on children? Do they make them feel safer, or less safe? And how do we talk to them about the reasons we're turning their schools into fortresses without scaring them half to death?
RESEARCH IN THIS AREA is in its infancy, according to the National Association of School Psychologists in Bethesda, Maryland, and little is known about the effectiveness of the new measures. There is some evidence, however, that the presence of security guards and metal detectors in schools increases students' levels of fear and may even be associated with "higher levels of disorder" in the institutions that use them. But at least one study showed that students may not be as frightened by media reports of school shootings as parents and teachers expect them to be, a finding borne out by anecdotal reports from experts.
"After Newtown, the question I got from my 5-year-old was 'Where's Connecticut?' " says Jason Kaplan, a school psychologist in the Newton Public Schools system. "I showed him on a map, and he said, 'Oh, OK' and had no more concerns whatsoever." Of course, not all children will be so sanguine, Kaplan concedes, when they hear of a disaster on the news or see cameras mounted in their schools' hallways. "Kids with a tendency toward anxiety will be anxious. Kids who are more active will work it out in play and might be more hyper or aggressive on a given day. The internalizing child may keep it in more" — in which case, he adds, parents and teachers should be on the lookout for changes in behavior, appetite, or sleep patterns.
The key to helping children of all personality types cope, say experts, is communicating with them openly and honestly, both in advance — regarding the new security measures — and after the fact if an incident does occur. Michael McCord, the head of school at the Learning Project, a private elementary school on Marlborough Street in the Back Bay, did that after the Marathon bombings by e-mailing the parents of the school's 118 students. "My general philosophy, which of course is moderated by the children's age," he says, "is to be very open and candid with kids, to let them know that if they have something they want to talk about, it's OK to talk about it. The worst course of action is to have their ideas go into some dark place. Talking about things can help people feel in better control of them."
Discussions in classrooms or assemblies should also correct any rumors that might be circulating. "Kids are really good at hearing things," says Kaplan, "at listening a lot. But they're not really good at understanding what it all means. So part of talking to them is helping them to decipher what they've heard."
Some vendors are pushing bulletproof backpacks and whiteboards that can be used as shields, while schools across the country have been criticized for realistic drills using guns that shoot blanks, controlled explosions, and "victims" covered in fake blood. Scott Poland, a nationally recognized expert on school crisis and a professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says such tactics go too far and can "really give kids the wrong impression, that schools are not safe places. In reality, they're about the safest places kids can be."
Emphasizing that is key.
"I have no problem saying to children, 'It's not going to happen to you, don't worry,' " says McCord. "When my children were younger and they'd ask, 'Is this plane going to crash?' I'd say no. I didn't say, 'Well, there's a 1 percent chance' or whatever. Children get in car accidents, children fall down, their parents get ill. They know that life isn't a guaranteed honeymoon. We can acknowledge that and build on it without scaring them about specific accidents happening."
Talking matter-of-factly to children about having a plan and following the instructions of nearby adults in the event of an incident is the best way to prepare them for the unlikely possibility that one will occur. "Just say, 'We want to keep everybody safe,' without going into the gory details or freaking people out," says Robin Hattersley Gray, executive editor of California-based Campus Safety Magazine. "Make it a priority but don't make it a huge deal."
Eric Rossen, director of professional development and standards at the National Association of School Psychologists, agrees. "Be honest and factual," he says, "but focus on the adults who are there to protect them: the firefighters, police, teachers. . . . If an 8-year-old comes up and says, 'I saw this on TV,' don't say, 'Oh, it was nothing.' Say, 'A man went into a building and had a gun, but nobody ended up being hurt.' Answer questions honestly and in a developmentally appropriate way."
Many schools are trying to head off potential problems with both violence and bullying among students with programs such as Open Circle, Responsive Classroom, and Second Step, which are meant to encourage empathy, emotion management, and problem solving in kids as young as kindergarten age. Such formalized lesson plans are more necessary today than they were in the past, says Kaplan, because then "it was learned more naturally. Kids were spending less time in front of a TV or computer screen and were out and about doing a lot more interacting outside of school. Kids have play dates now where they may spend an hour playing a video game, whereas 25 years ago they were playing with each other instead." Learning life skills — or, as Kaplan puts it, "how to live in society" — can create a positive atmosphere at school, which is perhaps the most important element in helping kids shrug off their fears. That way, says Kaplan, "if there happens to be a crisis like we had in Newtown, there's already a process in place for raising the issues and talking about it."
"The thing to remember is that kids are resilient," Rossen says. "If they already feel safe and secure and cared for, they will bounce back."
SCHOOL SAFETY AT A GLANCE
Percentage of US students age 12-18 seeing security guards and/or assigned police officers at school.
Percentage of children age 12-18 observing at least one security camera at school.
Percentage of boys in grades 9-12 who reported being threatened or injured with a weapon at school, compared with 5 percent of girls.
Percentage of boys in grades 9-12 with access to a gun without adult permission, compared with 4 percent of girls.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics; figures are for 2011, the latest year available
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.