Holistic Approach Produces Safer Schools and Prevents School Violence
A new report from the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office at the Department of Justice (DOJ) highlights critical actions that schools, school districts, and law enforcement agencies can take to improve the overall safety of schools – and not just by preventing school shootings. Ron Pierce of the Maryland Center for School Safety (MCSS) summarizes and analyzes the report’s findings below.
The School Safety Working Group at the COPS Office was asked to identify ten essential actions that can be taken to prevent school attacks. In doing so, they recognized the importance of a balanced, holistic and multidisciplinary approach to safer school environments that address mental health, personal connections to the community, and physical safety (Page 3).
The ten actions that jurisdictions can take to improve school safety are (Page 5):
|Physical Safety||Emotional Security|
|1. Comprehensive school safety assessment||2. School Climate|
|3. Campus, building, and classroom security||4. Anonymous reporting systems|
|5. Coordination with first responders||6. Behavior threat assessment and management|
|7. School-based law enforcement||8. Mental health resources|
|9. Drills||10. Social media monitoring|
The report makes clear that a multidisciplinary approach, which emphasizes a balanced set of actions supporting both the physical safety and the emotional security of students and staff is the only way to prevent school violence and mitigate school tragedies.
Such an approach is recommended based on the evidence and lessons learned from countless school emergencies analyzed including past traumatic events such as natural disasters, the death of a student or teacher, and mass school shootings. Research findings from the Federal Commission on School Safety and the U.S. Secret Service were cited frequently in the report to support these recommendations.
It’s worth stating that several states, notably Maryland, recognized the importance of these actions long before this report was written, and have legislated or otherwise instituted them throughout local school systems. With studies showing that in over eighty percent of cases at least one other person has knowledge of a school attacker’s plans, one of the first actions taken in Maryland was the creation of Safe Schools Maryland, an anonymous tip line/reporting system, which launched in 2018 in order to provide a way for anyone to report potential threats against schools or students or report other concerning behavior such as suicidal thoughts or child abuse.
The report noted that one of the important aspects of anonymous reporting systems is that they, “educate all members of the school community on indicators of potential self-harm or violence and how to share this information so officials can intervene before violence occurs” (Page 15).
Other actions taken by Maryland and other states and recognized by this report include mandating school safety assessments and improving school climate through funding for training staff and students on topics such as suicide prevention and trauma-informed care. Additionally, action in the form of grant funding has been made available to local school systems to address gaps in campus and classroom security, including improvements to security systems, staff training, and better door locks for classrooms.
Maryland has also offered local school officials training in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). CPTED, which is advocated for by this report as a tool to improve campus safety, is a design concept of manipulating the built environment in a manner that’s proven to reduce both the incidence of crime and fear. The report recognizes the significance of incorporating concepts of campus safety and crime prevention by design when retrofitting aging facilities or constructing new ones.
Studies of school attackers by the U.S. Secret Service showed that while most persons committing attacks on schools had a history of suicidal ideation and depression, many had never received a formal mental health evaluation. This report concludes that in order to prevent violence in schools, students must have access to counselors, psychologists, and social workers who can identify problems early and act immediately to intervene (Page 24). This intervention often takes the form of behavioral threat assessments best carried out by multidisciplinary teams composed of school staff, mental health professionals, and school resource officers (SROs). A plan for local school systems to address behavioral threats is mandated in several states including Maryland.
Among the most crucial actions mentioned in this report relate to school-based law enforcement. This report cites several studies that found that when specially-selected and trained SROs establish trusted relationships with students, these relationships have prevented school shootings (Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety). This is recognized and supported by school communities across this country; yet, some jurisdictions in the U.S. have recently responded to political pressure by discontinuing agreements between local police departments and school systems that had provided sworn police officers (SROs) in schools.
SROs in Maryland must be properly selected and trained in areas such as de-escalation, disability awareness, trauma-informed care, constructive interactions with students, and implicit bias. MCSS provides training to SROs and School Security Employees (SSE) throughout Maryland on these and many other student safety-focused topics
The report goes on to say that the value of SROs goes beyond responding to critical incidents because they mentor and educate students and build trust, which can not only have a profound impact on the school’s ability to prevent targeted violence and other harmful behaviors; it can also positively impact the lives of students in many ways (Page 24).
The role of the SRO is so important that Maryland currently appropriates ten million dollars a year in grant funding to support local police departments and school systems that provide SROs and/or provide adequate coverage by sworn law enforcement to public schools throughout Maryland.
Other actions such as coordination with first responders, drills and exercises, and social media monitoring also play a role in preventing school violence and mitigating emergencies. None of these actions, taken in isolation, provide a fail-safe solution. All of these actions affect and build upon each other to become effective strategies.
Improvements to physical safety also improve the emotional security of students and staff by reducing fear in the school environment. Additional mental health resources and steps to improve the school climate will drive down the incidents of bullying and behavioral issues, and will help to prevent school attacks. The presence of one caring adult, whether in the form of an SRO, a school counselor, or a teacher can be the singular difference in whether or not a student struggles, disconnects, and faces increasing challenges or survives, succeeds, and thrives.