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Can we make our schools safer?

I sat in recently on a conversation about school safety that was sparked by the school shooting in Connecticut. Administrators, principals, and parents sat around a table talking about security and what it means to them.

The most striking aspect of the conversation was how personally each one of these people who work in our public schools took this tragedy. For the rest of us, this was a horrific event. For them, each death could have been a life they had been in charge of caring for. They would have been the teachers sheltering kids behind them. They would have been the principal running to help.

That’s why I can’t fault them for wanting to make sure that they had the safest schools possible. And I can’t fault them at all for how they talked about it: there was no suggestion that we make our local schools, known for their laid-back feel and friendly atmosphere, into locked down facilities where parents aren’t welcome.

But I can’t help but think that when talking about school shootings, we are having the wrong conversation. When you take the problem of school security to its logical extremes, it’s clear that the problem is not so simple as “making schools safer” sounds. First of all, all of us—from superintendents through principals down to teachers, parents, and students—have no interest in making schools unhappy places. Current research just confirms what anyone who has worked with kids and really paid attention knows instinctively: kids learn best when they’re happy. In fact, when you teach a specific skill to someone who is unhappy and experiencing stress, the likelihood is that they’ll learn nothing at all.

So we try to figure out how to stop the violence in reasonable ways. But people who enter schools with the intention of killing children are well beyond any state of mind that a reasonable, sane person is able to access. People who kill children just because they can are in a mental state that no school official can match. They are willing to do things that no parent can fathom.

Certainly, we could fortify our schools, send teachers to school with guns, raise our kids in a state of fear where they instinctively dive for a closet at any loud noise. But no reasonable person wants this. We don’t want our kids going to school in a hermetically sealed environment where everyone is under suspicion—some kids in this country do in fact experience this every day, and no one involved is happy about it. (And, not surprisingly, these schools are the ones where kids are learning the least.)

So when it comes down to it, we have to admit that we are not willing to go to the lengths we’d need to go to in order to “secure” our schools. We might lock our doors, but the guy with the gun feels no hesitation at blowing the lock off the door. We might require background checks for everyone we allow into a school, but the guy with the gun isn’t going to bother to show any credentials. We can train staff and parents to question anyone who looks suspicious, but the guy with the gun isn’t going to hesitate just because someone says, “Can I help you?”

There’s also the matter of how increased security actually escalates violence. This is from security expert Bruce Schneier:

“We defend airplanes against certain terrorist tactics: shoe bombs, liquid bombs, underwear bombs. These measures have limited value because the number of potential terrorist tactics and targets is much greater than the ones we have recently observed. Does it really make sense to spend a gazillion dollars just to force terrorists to switch tactics? Or drive to a different target? In the face of modern society’s ambiguous dangers, it is flexibility that makes security effective.”

In other words, escalating security just tempts the bad guys to be more ingenious in their methods. In fact, no one has any solid data that unreasonable airport security is making us any safer.

Translated to school security, you can see where we’d be headed. Yes, we can turn all our schools into locked facilities. But Sandy Hook was locked. Yes, we could make the glass in the front door bulletproof, but what about the football field? What about the school auditorium that has a back door? What about the schools in my local community that are largely built as collections of small buildings all open to the outside?

Someone who is already insane enough to want to shoot up a school is not going to be stopped by reasonable security measures. And unreasonable security measures make our public schools even less inviting, in a time when many parents are trying to get their kids out of the public schools that are failing them in other ways.

Reasonable school security is fine. But at what point are we going to descend to asking 500 parents to take off their shoes and be frisked by an expensive machine so they can go see a school play? At what point are we going to see that no reasonable measure is going to stop an unreasonable person from finding a way around what we’ve done?

I believe that most of us are reasonable, and rational, and we know that this sort of security will not make our children safer. But if we’re not going to lock our children in padded cells, how do we solve this problem?

Perhaps we need to take a good, long look in a mirror held up to our culture and finally have serious conversations about who we really are and what we want as a nation. School security comes from our culture at large, not from a lock on the door.

Next: How strengthening our social ties will improve our schools and make them safer.

Posted in Culture, Education.


2 Responses

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  1. gasstationwithoutpumps says

    It is worse than that: schools are still one of the safest places for children to be. Spending resources adding useless security to schools takes those resources away from other forms of security (like adding patrolmen walking beats downtown) that would have far greater chance of saving kids’ lives.

    Having just been in a lockdown for several hours this week because of shootings half a block away, during which the school administration and police somehow forgot we were there, I can see the need for schools to discuss emergency procedures involving people with guns.

    But turning schools into prisoner-of-war camps is not the right procedure.

  2. Suki says

    Yes – at the meeting I attended, I was glad that another parent pointed out something we all have to remember: crime is WAY down in the United States. On top of that, new research is showing that we are probably living in the safest time ever to be a human being. The type of crime that is going up is the Sandy Hook type: one crazy person killing lots of people at once. But still, our kids are safer at school than they are at home. Another statistical fact to remember: If you want your kids to be safe, make a good choice for their father. Fathers are the most likely to harm or kill their kids, so if you’ve chosen well, your children are almost as safe as it’s possible for you to make them. Keeping them from having free play time outside, as so many parents do, will have no measurable effect on their safety.



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