Contrary to what is portrayed in the media, school safety isn’t a new concern for principals and school districts. School violence has always been on a principal’s radar.
Events over the last few years, however, have raised the stakes on addressing violence in schools. The kinds of incidents that require addressing and safety measures have evolved in a terrible direction, from bullying and hallway fights to major incidents, including shootings.
In truth, overall safety in schools is better now than it has been in the last 20 years. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that nonfatal student victimization, including what the center referred to as “serious violent victimization,” dropped between 1992 and 2016, both at school and off campus.
The center reported drops in other areas of safety as well. Threats to teachers were down three percent in 2016 from those reported in the 1993-1994 school year. This was also true of other types of crime, with rates of fights without a weapon dropping in the few years between 2009 and 2016.
Fears have escalated, despite an overall drop in school violence. As incidents have morphed from fist fights to mass shootings, students, parents, and even entire communities want to know that their schools are safe. The 50th Annual PDK Poll of the Public Attitudes Toward Public Schools uncovered that only twenty-seven percent of parents of children in kindergarten through twelfth grade had strong confidence in the safety of their schools.
The spotlight is on districts and principles to provide evidence that they are dealing with these problems. For obvious reasons, parents and students want to see proof that schools are as concerned as they are. At the same time, schools feel deeply their responsibility to provide safe learning environments where the focus is on education, not protection.
From the outside, the most apparent measures are the “in-the-moment” interventions. Metal detectors, security officers, and active shooter drills are important and apparent to the community but are a double-edged sword. While they are clear proof of the actions being taken by the school, they also induce underlying fear and concern where there may not be a call for any.
That fear can manifest in ways that impact them and their school. A significant number of students – nearly seven percent – reported missing classes in the previous month because they felt unsafe at school, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. These students are not only missing out on key lessons, but they could be affecting a school’s funding.
Schools have a fine line to walk. They must be making clear progress toward improving school safety while at the same time offering a nurturing environment conducive to education. While schools must acknowledge the potential threat of a severe incident, and plan for it, their best bet is to address the underlying concerns that lead to school violence. Elements such as attendance, absenteeism, and behavioral issues are early signals to issues.
Schools are at a disadvantage, though, in identifying these elements early enough to make a difference. Traditional methods of tracking and uncovering problems hinder identification and therefore slow or even miss getting students the help they need. School staff needs new tools to help proactively handle difficulties that can evolve into a crisis.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The old adage couldn’t be more accurate than when applied to school safety measures. Proactive identification and management not only prevent violent incidents, but they also create a better school environment and a more enriching educational experience.
These problems are ones that schools already contend with on a daily basis – class attendance, outbursts, behavior issues, and absences. Their impact on students, classrooms, and schools are clear. These issues, however, can be early warning signs that, if left unchecked, result in school violence.
The Centers for Disease control recommends curbing school violence by addressing public health issues. Their recommended approach includes helping students at an individual, relationship, community, and societal levels by prioritizing proactive prevention, improving the academic experience, and focusing on the emotional and behavioral health needs of students. Not only does this improve school safety, but it also improves the student experience.
To address these concerns early enough to curb future safety issues, schools must have the ability to recognize problems early on. This requires a new set of tools for recognition, tracking, and remediation and a holistic and comprehensive plan.
Issues like these are complex and multifaceted. They can manifest across multiple classrooms and even over multiple school years. Traditional recording and reporting methods can prevent early detection.
Technology tools, however, are designed to gather and retain data and provide it for review in a number of ways. Using modern technology solutions, schools have a means of detecting problems early, managing issues, tracking interventions and remediation, and the ability to provide school boards and the community clear, comprehensive, and accurate reports.
Understanding and identifying issues within the school is the paramount to a proactive approach in addressing school safety concerns and preventing violence. Some of these issues are precursors to bigger problems, while others signal that issues already exist and need to be resolved.
When students aren’t in class, they aren’t learning. Whether a student feels safe, however, may be affecting their attendance, and can snowball into bigger difficulties for the student and the school.
When students aren’t in class, they aren’t learning. Some absences, such as those caused by illness, are not only unavoidable, but they help the overall health of the school. When absenteeism becomes chronic, however, both the student and the school can be impacted.
Chronic absenteeism is an enormous problem with a myriad of potential causes. Defined as missing more than fifteen days in a school year, more than seven million students were chronically absent during the 2015-16 school year. One in six students in the United States could be classified as being chronically absent.
Missing so much school can impact an individual throughout their life. The U.S. Department of Education identifies some of the effects as failing to reach early learning milestones when absences occur in the early years of school, be a positive indicator of the likelihood of dropping out of school, and can lead to poor outcomes in adult life, including poor health, living in poverty, and ending up in the criminal justice system.
The cause of a student’s chronic absenteeism can be varied. Reasons fall into three general categories – barriers to attendance, myths about absenteeism, and aversion to school.
Barriers to attendance are frequently brought about by socio-economic situations, but not always. Barrier reasons include such things as illness, general lack of healthcare, and lack of transportation options, or lack of a safe path to school.
Myths arise from a misunderstanding of the negative effects of missing school. These beliefs can include thinking that absences are only important if they are unexcused, minimization of spread out absences versus consecutive days, and the emphasis is placed on attendance in a later school year – i.e. “grade school doesn’t matter as much.”
While all of the categories are important, it is the third – aversion – that can be a signal to deeper problems within a school. Children may become averse to school because they are struggling academically. But by and large, the reasons associated with aversion stem from feeling safe at school.
As noted earlier, the majority of parents and students have a general lack of faith in the safety of schools. When it comes to chronic absenteeism, however, the problems could stem from being bullied or from specific threats. Whether the bullying is indirect, based on being treated poorly because of their social standing, family financial situation, or even race, culture or personal appearance, or if that bullying is more specifically targeted at an individual, students who are bullied are less willing to attend school.
This is a problem for the student. It’s also detrimental to the school.
Students who miss academic instruction also perform poorly on standardized tests or miss them completely. This can lead to schools receiving a poor rating or being downgraded and losing funding.
Another impact that absenteeism can have on funding is when chronically absent students miss key attendance days. Rosters that show low attendance on these important days result in a drop in funds, making it harder for schools to find and implement services that can help keep those same children in school.
Traditional solutions to tracking attendance may hamper a school’s ability to identify children with chronic absentee troubles or uncover the causes of the problem.
Humans are fallible, and when an overwhelmed teacher is asked to record attendance manually, mistakes will be made. Teachers may inadvertently miss recording an absence. With a focus on educating their class, teachers may not always prioritize attendance taking. Even when they do, it can be easy to miss something given the multitude of distractions a class hour can bring.
Even when a teacher keeps excellent attendance records, compiling manual data, and evaluating it can be, at best, cumbersome. Identification of students with chronic issues can take time, especially when those absences are excused and sporadic, making it difficult to see a pattern.
With identification being problematic, engaging the appropriate school resources – such as counselors – can be slowed. It can take time to recognize there is an issue and even longer to get the right people involved to correct the problem.
This is concerning, since there may be a small window in which a school can step in and help a child get back on track with attendance. By the time a school finds a student with attendance issue, engages the right resources, and makes contact with a student and their parents, the student may have already fallen significantly behind.
Even in the classrooms where a teacher uses a computer to track attendance, distractions still exist and the potential for inaccurate reporting is high. Situations like this still depend on a single point of failure – the teacher – who already has a full plate with teaching and managing students.
Attendance taken by a computer may speed some of the processes, but if, like many school attendance systems are siloed, there may still be issues. If an attendance system is not integrated with other data, such as behavioral issues, interventions, grades, and so forth, challenges may still be shrouded in a jumble of disconnected information. Schools can more easily see a problem that might be caused by bullying if they can see multiple data points displayed together. Without that, school administrators may completely miss a problem right under their noses.
Today’s schools have access to tools that can accelerate the identification and communication of absentee problems and allow for a holistic view of a student’s school experience.
Using a smart card system, like ScholarChip’s smart ID cards, puts the responsibility of checking into the classroom on the shoulders of the student. Signing in becomes trivial as the student uses their card as they walk into class.
Instead of the teacher carrying the burden for attendance, the responsibility is out across the students, who only need to responsible for themselves. This frees the teacher to concentrate on the task at hand – educating students – rather than being bogged down in administrative tasks.
Another benefit of a smart card system is the collection and analysis of data. Because information collected is timely and accurate, problems can be identified quickly. Absentee data can be easily combined with other tracking data to create a complete picture of both issues and interventions.
With full visibility into an issue, schools can avoid the mistake of punishing students who miss school when what they need is assistance from school services, or for a potential school safety issue to be addressed. By addressing the core problem instead of falling back on punishment, schools prove to students, parents, and the community that they care deeply about the educational experience of their students and that they are proactively dealing with problems and increasing the sense of security in the school.
Like absenteeism, attendance and truancy issues can indicate that a student is uneasy at school or may be the target of bullying. But unexcused absences and skipping classes can also be a precursor to more severe delinquency and a signal to the potential of future violence and crime.
When students skip school, avoid the buss, or miss specific classes, schools need to consider the possibility that the student is a target of bullying. They may be preventing specific areas of the school or classes to keep away from their tormentors. Unlike absenteeism, these students are taking their aversion into their own hands. Their parents may refuse to call them in, or they may be embarrassed to tell adults they are being singled out by other students.
Other students may be missing class because of poor performance, or because they are already on a path to acting out, bullying other students, and exhibiting other delinquent behaviors. Students who are bullies are at higher risk of alcohol and substance abuse, making them a detriment to their schools and their futures.
Besides delinquency being a precursor to school safety issues, students who exhibit these behaviors also pose a risk to the community’s view of the school and the district. Students with poor attendance track records are more likely to dropout of school, potentially leading to reduced funding and poor graduation rates for the district.
Typical remedies for unexcused absences and truancy are punitive. Students are punished for these behaviors with the intent of correcting through negative reinforcement. But whether the student is skipping school because of being bullied or is on the way to becoming a bully themselves, punishment may have the opposite effect, up to and including pushing students to drop out.
Traditional attendance systems may also hinder a school’s ability to track truancy. Students may show for homeroom but skip a class later in the day. Paper-and-pencil attendance or siloed attendance systems can hide a pattern, much like those students who are chronically absent.
Relating truancies to interventions can be difficult in those situations. Keeping track of interventions as well as attendance can be problematic and inconsistent. Without a comprehensive view of interventions, a problem could remain hidden for a long time. If a student is pulled aside by a teacher for skipping one class and visits the principal for another, then also speaks to a counselor who records the intervention, how many of those are identified? And who is keeping an eye on that data?
As in the discussion on absenteeism, Scholarchip’s smart ID cards are a modern solution that can help accurately gather data and quickly reflect that information across multiple classrooms and school services. When students use their cards to check into each classroom, scan in when entering and leaving the building, and even when getting on the bus, schools can get an exact and dependable view of attendance.
Integrating various school systems improves the visibility into attendance issues and the effects of interventions on truancy and absences. With clear reporting that pulls data together from across the various school departments, administrators can quickly pinpoint where issues may be happening.
Depending on age, a certain amount of acting out in class is expected and anticipated. But if these problems persist or increase, they can point to deeper issues and a need for greater intervention.
In a first-grade class, a student yelling in class may be just another Thursday. By seventh grade, however, that behavior is likely out of line. Has the student always acted this way? Has this been addressed at a previous school? Is this new?
Unless trained to identify specific problems, teachers may treat behavioral issues in their class more or less seriously. One may report or react immediately to any problem where another takes it in stride for too long.
While over-reporting of issues may be a nuisance, under-reporting or inconsistent reporting can obfuscate a current and growing problem. Repeated acting out, chronic disobeying, and classroom violence can signal to underlying issues that require greater intervention from the school and support services and can lead to safety issues for teachers and other students.
Behavioral tracking and reporting in schools is far more subject to inconsistent tracking than attendance may be, and not just because teachers may view behavioral problems in different ways. A student may act out and be pulled aside in class, followed by a note home on a second instance, and only upon a third instance is sent to the office or a notation made in a teacher’s grade book.
As far as the administration is concerned, the problem has just arisen, where a teacher may have been dealing with the student for weeks or months. With little to no records on the problems, intervention and remediation may be slow.
Unless issues are severe enough or frequent enough to be tracked formally, there is little insight for schools on student behavioral problems from year to year, and from school to school. In these instances, it’s impossible to tell if behavioral problems are new, escalating, or consistent without a great deal of legwork by teachers and administration. That kind of effort may not seem necessary until a problem has become a crisis.
What’s worse, behavioral issues and classroom disruptions are frequently treated as single events that can be discouraged with punishment. Yet these students may actually be in need of emotional support services or alternative classroom settings, with anxiety and depression manifesting as classroom misbehavior. Punishing these children takes schools away from their mission of ensuring the best educational experience for each of their students.
Teachers, students, and schools can all benefits from behavioral tracking systems that track issues across a student’s career. A tool like Scholarchip’s ABE system makes reporting, tracking, and identifying issues clear across classrooms and a student’s career. This can uncover patterns that may be hidden across locations, reporting frameworks, and staff.
With ABE, communication across services is more efficient. Administrative tasks, such as referrals to school specialists and support resources can be automated. This allows schools to address issues proactively, resulting in better outcomes for both the teachers and the students.
With a single source of data for recording behavioral incidents, interventions can be tracked and understood, and progress can be made along proposed guidelines and individual education plans without missing steps or confusion. If further services are needed, schools have a wealth of information at their fingertips to support the recommendation. Data is quickly compiled over a student’s entire career, and reports show a comprehensive view of all actions taken.
In the end, tracking, identifying, and supporting students with behavioral issues is a benefit for the school and the student. By proactively recognizing a student’s need for alternative educational services, schools can head off confrontations in classrooms. While not every behavioral issue results in a school safety concern, addressing these challenges in a caring and proactive way ensures students receive the help that they need long before issues morph into more serious acting out, delinquency, or violence.