Learn how to take your school safety beyond just hardening schools with this free ebook!

You’ll learn about:

  • The current state of school security.
  • How to learn from past instances to be proactive
  • What research reveals as the most impactful factors of school safety

  • Best practices for building a safer school community
  • The critical role of climate in keeping schools safer
  • How to better monitor and manage student behavior and more!

In a different era, school safety meant ensuring playground equipment was in good repair; staff was assigned to monitor students and break up schoolyard fisticuffs. Doors would be left unlocked during the school day and crimes generally were limited to vandalism and petty theft. This changed with the April 1999 Columbine High School shooting.  While it was not the first school shooting incident in the country, at the time it was the deadliest, and the methodical attack horrified the nation.

School security, over the past two decades, has grown to become a multi-billion dollar industry.  School boards responded to public demands for safer schools by allocating resources to hardening school buildings, transforming unarmored “soft targets” to fortified installations.

Over the 20 years since Columbine, much of the emphasis has focused on outside threats. In the immediate aftermath of Columbine, schools across the country upgraded their access control systems, some added metal detectors, many banned long coats that could conceal weapons and students were no longer allowed to carry book bags in the halls and classrooms during the school day. Targeted attack incidents continued as lawmakers searched for ways to further strengthen security. Following the February 2018 Parkland, Florida shooting, the state passed legislation requiring that all schools hire SROs with weapons training.

Despite these security measures, schools continue to be targeted.  School shootings make headlines with alarming regularity. School leaders need to reevaluate their approach to security. Systems that stop a student from walking into school with a gun are necessary, but wouldn’t it be better to prevent a student from ever wanting to bring a gun to school in the first place?

Programs and technology to address behavior issues, teach social-emotional skills and improve a school’s climate have the potential to create safer schools by building a school community that embraces inclusion, celebrates individual and group successes, and encourages communication. Empowering students to make their own behavior choices and holding them accountable for their decisions gives them a stake in the school community. Automated attendance and behavior management systems have the capability to red flag students at risk of becoming disenfranchised and possibly violent.

 The Current State of School Security

The odds of a school district becoming the target of a mass shooting are minuscule. Driven by the sensational nature of targeted attacks, and the politics of gun control, media coverage of school shootings is intense. This feeds a fear for student lives disproportionate to the statistical risk. According to the CDC, homicide is the third leading cause of death among young people. Less than 3% of these occur at school. There are nearly 57 million K-12 students in the U.S. During the 2015-16 school year, 18 were victims of school-associated homicides. Each death is a tragedy, but school leaders charged with managing school resources must consider these risk levels when dedicating funds to security systems. Addressing the more common, nonfatal violent behaviors may be a more effective way to secure schools than measures specifically designed to prevent gun violence.

Prevalent Threats

Nearly 20% of students, ages 12-18, reported being bullied in school, according to the NCES Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2018 report. More than 800,000 students in this group report they were victims of theft or a nonfatal assault (rape, sexual assault other than rape, physical attack or fight with or without a weapon, threat of physical attack with or without a weapon, and robbery with or without a weapon) while in school. During the 2015-16 school year, 11% of public school teachers in elementary and secondary schools, reported being threatened with injury by a student. 9% were physically attacked.

A school’s core mission becomes secondary in an environment where one in five students are bullied and thousands are being robbed, physically threatened or attacked. The NCES survey asked students if they feared for their safety while in school. Around 5% of students in grades 6-12 reported being afraid in school and avoiding school activities, classes, or specific areas of the school building because they feared they would be harmed.

The seemingly random nature of school shootings and the horror and grief of fatalities has made these attacks the central focus of many school security programs. However, the prevalent threats of bullying, theft, threats of physical harm, and physical assaults create a hostile environment where learning is subordinated to survival. Fear and mistrust create fissures in the school community and students at risk of doing harm to others or themselves are not easily identified.

How Districts Have Responded to School Violence

Schools provide more than an education. In most towns, schools function as a community hub. Parents and the public are invited to attend recitals, plays and athletic events. Twenty years ago, it was normal for schools to leave their doors unlocked during the school day. Access control systems often were no more than a sign-in sheet at the main office. This certainly has changed.

 Access control is the most widely implemented security measure in districts across the country with 94% of public schools reporting they lock and monitor doors when classes are in session. Most schools have installed security cameras to monitor activity in hallways and on school grounds. More than two-thirds of schools surveyed require faculty and staff wear photo ID badges. To a lesser extent, schools have added metal detectors, implemented student dress codes/school uniforms, and require student ID badges for added security.

Over the past decade, the percentage of schools that employ armed law enforcement officers has risen from 30% to nearly 43%. Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, signed into law March 2018, requires every school in the state to have a sworn law enforcement officer on site. Allowing teachers to bring guns into classrooms is controversial and rife with political messaging. The effectiveness of bringing guns into schools to prevent school shootings has not been proven, yet parents often demand armed guards for their children. Emotions hold more sway than statistics. School leaders must consider the research and allocate resources where they will be most effective while satisfying the public that their children are safe in school.

School Security — What the research says

School violence strikes at the foundations of what society believes is good and right. The most vulnerable, our children, must be protected. Schools should be safe, nurturing environments. The horror of school shootings is always followed by questions: “Why did this happen?” and “How can we prevent it from ever happening again?” 

Multiple studies, including the U.S. Secret Service’s Safe School Initiative Report and the Department of Education’s Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline, have sought answers by aggregating data collected over the decades. In March 2018, as a response to the Parkland, Florida shooting, the Trump administration formed the Federal Commission on School Safety. The Commission reviewed existing literature, made field visits to communities affected by school violence, and held listening sessions with administrators, educators, and professionals in the mental health field. The Commission’s final report provides insights and offers strategies for preventing and responding to school violence.

Findings of the Federal Commission on School Safety

An analysis of the data reveals that there is no single profile that can be applied to preemptively identify students prone to violence. The one commonality is a sense of isolation. Students that commit acts of violence are often victims of bullying and have become disenfranchised. They span the spectrum of ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses. They may excel academically or not. Most have no history of behavior problems that would indicate a tendency towards violence. However, the Safe School Initiative found that targeted attacks were rarely impulsive. Perpetrators made plans and usually hinted at or shared their plans with others.

A follow-up to the Initiative, the Bystander Study, reports that bystanders failed to report their advanced knowledge of threats when they lacked encouragement and support from adults or felt emotionally disconnected from their school and its staff. They feared their role as an informant would be revealed and they would be ridiculed, not believed, or get in trouble. These fears grow in a negative school climate that pits students against staff and each other.

Character Development and a Connected Community

The Commission identifies character development programs as an essential component of a district’s safety plan. Cultivating ethical values such as respect, fairness, and responsibility within the school will foster a positive school climate, open communication channels and reduce feelings of isolation. Students that feel connected to their peers and adults in their lives are more apt to share their concerns and fears.While the Commission notes that those suffering mental illness are no more likely than others to commit violent acts, the report authors recognize the challenges school administrators face in dealing with student mental health needs. According to the World Health Organization, half of all mental illnesses begin during adolescence. Schools can play a critical role in early identification and intervention. Helping the families of students suffering from mental illness navigate the healthcare system and providing in-school support can reduce the isolation and anger felt by students who act out with violence.

Building Security: Best Practices

Targeted attacks are nearly always followed by public demand for measures to fortify buildings against intruders. Anxious parents attend board meetings with petitions asking for armed officers, stronger access control systems, video surveillance, and metal detectors. These overt security systems—while commonplace in prisons and military installations—may not be an effective or appropriate use of resources in schools. The Federal Commission on School Safety recognizes the need to upgrade infrastructure to better secure school grounds, buildings, and classrooms, but cautions that a school’s primary function as a place for learning may be threatened in the inhospitable environment created by hardening measures.

Every district, and every building within a district, has unique qualities and each requires custom solutions to their security needs. The National Association of School Psychologists conducted a review of the literature on the effectiveness of implementing enhanced physical security. According to the report, “There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence.” Moreover, the presence of armed guards, metal detectors and other intrusive measures create a climate of hostility and fear, which leads to increased disorder, crime, and disruptions in schools.Rigid discipline policies, zero-tolerance and conduct codes based on a “broken windows” policing theory further aggravate a school’s negative climate. The NASP reports that bringing law enforcement into schools has raised concerns that student behavior is being criminalized, and students are moved out of the normal school discipline channels into the juvenile justice system — the school-to-prison pipeline. In this environment, the sense of community necessary for a secure school is nearly impossible to maintain.

The Importance of a Positive Climate for School Security

A school’s climate is the daily mood of the building. It may be a positive one where students and teachers work together to achieve goals and jointly celebrate successes. In such an environment, students feel free to share their fears and concerns with adults. They are willing to take the risks necessary for learning and growth because they know the school community will support their efforts.

 A school may have a negative climate where students view adults as the opposition and adults eye students with suspicion. The relationship between administrators and teachers may be strained, a malaise that will filter down to students and their families. 

In this atmosphere, individual survival takes precedence over the community good. Over time, a school’s climate becomes its culture; its established norms and expectations. A negative culture increases the danger that students will become disengaged and lash out with violence.

SEL and Behavior Management Systems — Foundations of a Safe School

Students bring society’s diversity into the classroom. They arrive with varying levels of social skill and different beliefs, guided by their home cultures about what is normal and appropriate behavior. Research has shown that incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL) into school programs significantly improves student behaviors, attitudes, and academic performance. Students that can competently deal with difficult social situations and control their own emotions are better equipped to engage with others. When these competencies are school-wide, they facilitate the creation of a strong community of civic-minded learners.

What is SEL?

Social-emotional skills are the non-cognitive soft skills that enable individuals to successfully operate in social arenas and exercise self-discipline. These skills include:

Communication skills – Students need to learn how to clearly express themselves and actively listen to others for understanding. This includes learning how to negotiate and resolve conflicts. 

Ability to cooperate – Humans are social creatures. The ability to function as part of a team is critical in school and in life beyond the classroom.

Self-awareness/self-confidence – Students that understand their own strengths and limitations, their values and goals, are better equipped to interact and learn with their teachers and peers. Self-knowledge includes an understanding that individuals are not defined by their mistakes, failures, or other temporal events, but by their core character as revealed by attitudes and behaviors.

Ability to understand different perspectives – At an early age, children begin to learn that others have feelings and thoughts different from their own. By the time they enter school, students need to understand how their behavior affects others.

Emotion regulation – this includes impulse control, stress management, ability to delay gratification and tenacity.

Holding a growth mindset – A growth mindset is a belief that intelligence and other qualities are not fixed. It is an understanding that, with work, any student can grow and achieve academically. Students with a fixed mindset attribute past failures to something beyond their control, their IQ or some other measure. Lacking agency, students have no motivation to complete homework assignments or study for exams.

Students lacking these skills may become frustrated; they may feel alienated and even angry as they try to navigate the difficult terrain of academic and social demands. Incorporating SEL programs into a school’s learning programs will nurture the development of social and emotional intelligence in students. Rather than view these programs as additions to the regular curriculum, they should be viewed as the underpinnings of a holistic education, critical to motivating students and creating a secure and supportive climate for learning.

Behavior Management for more secure schools

A school community is built by sharing a vision of what a school should be with all community members. Students, faculty, administrators, and taxpayers commit to common goals and objectives. Students must understand and accept as fair and reasonable the community’s behavior expectations, the consequences of misbehavior, and the procedures and processes used to enforce codes of conduct. The goal of any behavior management must be to ensure schools are safe and orderly, but equally important is the learning component of behavior interventions. To be effective, discipline must nurture student growth and self-discipline.

Legacy behavior management systems are prone to inconsistencies. Student behavior records often are an aggregation of handwritten notes and carbon copies of referral forms stored in manila file folders. It is difficult for administrators, counselors, and teachers to coordinate interventions. Teachers vary in their tolerance for misbehavior and one may overlook an incident that would prompt another to issue a detention. Students recognize the unfairness of this and may come to believe punishment is subjective and not a consequence of their behavior. Rather than working to draw students into the school community, these systems can create a rift between the student and school authorities.

An effective behavior management system is consistent, objective and fair. It must serve to teach social skills, develop self-discipline and work to meet psychological deficits that may underlie poor behavior. Self-determination theory holds that people have three basic psychological needs — a sense of competence, a sense of autonomy and a sense of relatedness. These needs must be met for healthy psychological development, intrinsic motivation, self-regulation, and well-being. In a school setting, students must believe they are capable of doing what is required for success. They must feel they have options and agency but also must recognize that poor decisions will bring negative consequences.  They must also feel they are a part of the school community, sharing in goals, and celebrating peer successes.

Technology for Safe Schools 

Turning schools into hardened fortresses has not been proven an effective way to secure buildings and obtrusive security may actually make schools less safe. Advances in technology have made many physical security measures obsolete. As schools retire legacy IT, they can move to integrated systems that will not only streamline operations but also improve security.

Modern Access Control Systems

Most districts now require school personnel to wear ID badges, but often these badges are simply laminated photo IDs produced using school computers. They do little more than show hall monitors that the wearer is authorized to be in the building. RFID technology has revolutionized identity management and smart IDs bring a new level of security to schools.

With a smart ID system, all students and school personnel are issued a chip-embedded ID card. When the card is swiped or tapped at a card reader, it connects to the cardholder’s information, which is stored on a host computer. Cards serve as keys to unlock interior and exterior doors. Data collected through these card readers give administrators real-time data on who is in the building. Administrators may monitor school activity from an administration portal and control every door in a building from a remote location. 

 Throughout the school day, vendors, substitutes, volunteers and other visitors request access. A modern visitor management system automates the screening and processing of these requests. Visitors must swipe a government-issued ID, such as a driver’s license, and the system will record the information and red-flag those that may pose a threat. For example, a person on a sex offender registry could be barred entry. Automated visitor management systems will time stamp a visitor’s entrance, issue a temporary badge and store all information where it may be accessed by school personnel and law enforcement. Systems may be expanded to allow custom alerts and integrated with SIS software to facilitate student pickup.

Automated Behavior Management Systems

Automated behavior management systems simplify the recording of student behaviors, both positive and negative, and serve as a hub where administrators, teachers, and counselors may access complete records of incidents and interventions. Parents can view unbiased reports of their children’s behavior. With year-to-year tracking, behavior patterns are easily identified and students at-risk may be flagged. Systems may be configured to trigger a referral to the office when a particular threshold is met. A comprehensive system includes learning modules that test a student’s social-emotional development and teaches skills with interactive, age-appropriate videos and games.

Automated Attendance

The start of the school day, and in high schools, the start of each class, has the teacher occupied taking attendance while the students passively wait for lessons to begin. Automated attendance systems hand the responsibility of recording attendance over to the students. A swipe or tap of their smart ID marks them present. It gives students an increased sense of responsibility and autonomy, is a more accurate way to record attendance, and relieves teachers of a clerical task that delays the start of instruction.

Automated systems may be configured to flag regularly absent or tardy students so that schools may intervene before the situation becomes chronic. School administrators have real-time access to attendance data, which is critical in an emergency. Attendance systems may be integrated with communication systems so that a parent may be notified when their child checks in at school.

Data Management Systems to Inform Decisions

Traditionally, student records are scattered across multiple systems — electronic grade books, attendance software applications, student information databases, and manually created behavior records. Administrators, counselors, educators and parents do not have access to the same information, which can create conflict. Outdated communication systems exacerbate the problem making it difficult to coordinate support for at-risk students. 

New, integrated IT combines student information to create complete data sets. Information is available in real-time. Powerful reporting functions can reveal correlations, such as the relationship between increased absenteeism and declining academic performance, and may point to causation to suggest interventions.

Modern School Security

School leaders face multiple challenges. They must work with the Board and educators to hold up rigorous learning standards and ensure IDEA mandates, anti-bullying and attendance requirements are met. With finite resources, administrators must address human resource demands and maintain the integrity of the district’s building and technology infrastructure.  Overriding all these concerns is the need to keep everyone in the school safe. The public demands increased security; students, faculty and staff cannot further a school’s education mission in a threatening environment.

Securing buildings with enhanced access control systems is a partial solution. The RAND report advises a multi-layered approach to school security that includes utilizing new technologies. As legacy systems begin to fail, districts can adopt new, integrated systems that will streamline operations and manage school security across the district.  
ScholarChip offers a solution called Alternative Behavior Educator (ABE). This innovative program enables school leaders to identify, monitor, and improve student behavior throughout a student’s career, while giving administrators and teachers powerful data-driven reports that quickly flag at-risk students, help monitor and chronicle progress, and support decision-making tasks. ​The ScholarChip system incorporates the complete spectrum of behavior and integrates student rewards, interventions, and tracking with PowerSchool®, Infinite Campus, and other popular SIS platforms.

To learn how ScholarChip can help keep your schools safer and more secure learn more about the many solutions ScholarChip provides or to get free recommendations, feel free to connect with one of our specialists today!