I’m not one of those parents who watches my kids board the bus every day with trepidation, wondering if I’ll ever see them again. But in the aftermath of the gun violence our country has suffered recently, I no longer think about what if this happens to us — I wonder about when it will.
I don’t want to arm teachers. But I do want schools to be safe. And, just as importantly, I don’t want my children to feel like they go to school in a prison, either. Parents and educators have to consider how to balance the statistical risk against the potential for random terror, while creating an environment that doesn’t crush every last bit of the joy of childhood.
In August, when my kids returned to school, it was impossible to miss that some doorways had been outfitted with buzz-in entry systems that allow employees to screen anyone seeking admittance. The added security measure makes sense. In January, a disgruntled former student broke into a Portsmouth, Rhode Island, high school with a knife, assaulted a teacher, and lined up students in the gym, according to a police report. In May, a bomb threat caused an evacuation of that same school. Statistics be damned — it’s hard not to think that your kids could be next.
A few weeks before school started, I met Lily Valenta, a survivor of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. She’s now a high school freshman in Massachusetts and working on a book about her experience. Valenta told me that security cameras, screened entryways, locked doors, and safety drills help her feel secure at school. But she also enlists help from other “safe people” — counselors, friends, her principal, teachers, and a resource officer — who help her feel comfortable on campus. In fact, fostering communities where kids feel supported and have access to mental health care may be one of the most effective ways to thwart violence in schools. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, only a small number of students who need mental health services ever receive them. Among students who do, the majority get those services in school.
“If a child is afraid, the best thing you can spend money on is a psychologist, not a bulletproof backpack,” advises James Alan Fox, criminologist and professor at Northeastern University. That’s solid advice for parents who might be struggling, too.
Although the overall rate of mass shootings has actually remained unchanged for decades, the media coverage that follows such events fuels public panic. Flawed data collection is partly to blame, Fox says. According to his research, schools are actually safer now than they were in the early 1990s, when four times as many students were killed by gunfire. Of the more than 55 million schoolchildren in the United States, about 10 annually were killed by guns at school over the past 25 years. I don’t find this comforting exactly, but Fox is quick to point out that many more die each year from bicycle accidents. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1995 and 2015, the percentage of students who felt unsafe at school dropped from 12 percent to 3 percent.
Mass school shootings like those at Sandy Hook and in Parkland, Florida, are not the new normal, he says, nor are they an epidemic. The distinction matters; the perceived threat can hamper solutions. For example, overly realistic active shooter and lockdown drills may cause more harm than good if they traumatize students. And campaigning for metal detectors and armed teachers probably isn’t the best approach, either — creating a fortress-like campus isn’t a great environment for learning. “This sends a message that [students] have a bull’s-eye on their back[s] and the bad guys are out to get you,” says Fox, who has authored multiple books, including Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder and Violence and Security on Campus.
No one is arguing that schools shouldn’t meet certain security standards. But unobtrusive technology is more likely to keep kids safer and feeling more secure. Security cameras, screened entries, and upgraded communication systems are a few of the more subtle changes schools can make. Others include installing impact-resistant glass, reinforced walls, bulletproof whiteboards, and acoustic sensors that can transmit information to police. Of course, these military-grade materials aren’t cheap, and schools must decide where to best allocate resources.
At my kids’ school, it turns out that some of the most important upgrades made over the past three years are things that can’t really be seen. For example, safety drills are designed to be effective, but not scary. Protocols were developed to get substitute teachers up to speed fast. Revamped communications systems (including adding good old walkie-talkies) permit quicker emergency dispatches with first responders and allow staff to easily interact. Above all, though, “Ninety-nine percent of what I’m going to do has to do with mental health,” our principal, Brian Cordeiro, told me. That means offering guidance and support for all students, he says, regardless of what problems they’re facing.
Jodi Valenta, Lily’s mother, developed her own criteria for screening potential school districts when her family moved to a suburb northwest of Boston after Sandy Hook. At the time, few security guidelines for elementary schools existed. She sought out institutions where safety protocols were constantly evaluated and updated. But a building should “look and feel like a normal school,” she explained. Safety measures should not impede learning.
Part of being a parent requires having faith in the world around us. But, on some level, we’re also beleaguered by a chronic desire to protect them from it, too. No matter what the numbers say, sometimes the emotional half of your parenting brain can’t wrap itself around the “logical” side — at least not when it comes to violence at school.