As students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., returned to school last week, debate continued over how to make the nation’s schools safer in the aftermath of second-deadliest mass murder in U.S. history.
But lost in the debate is that school shootings are extremely rare — fewer than 1 percent of all homicides occur at school or on the way to or from school, according to government statistics.
“Relative to how rare they are, school massacres have a much stronger leverage on the public perception and fear of school violence than their numbers would really warrant,” said Glenn Muschert, associate professor sociology at Miami University whose research focuses on school shootings and school security. “But people can’t help but feel emotional when there are these horrible attacks that take place.”
School shootings serve as a stark reminder of how vulnerable schools can be, invariably leading to calls to step up security to prevent such tragedies. But installing elaborate security systems — measures that became widespread after the 1997 Columbine High School massacre — can have unintended negative consequences, according to Muschert.
“Things like cameras, metal detectors and police in schools are visible measures that school administrators can point to to show parents what they’re doing to insure safety in the schools,” he said. “But if they create a feeling among students that they’re in a lock-down zone that might actually undermine the primary goal of their education.”
The push for more security officers and having weapons-trained teachers or administrators in the schools is no panacea, Muschert said, noting that armed guards were present at Columbine and were still unable to stop the shooters from killing 12 students and a teacher.
Research has shown subtler approaches are often more effective, he said, including teaching peer mediation and conflict resolution skills to students and establishing tip lines where students and staff can report threats and other suspicious behavior anonymously.
Any safety measure must involve open communication to be effective, Muschert said.
“If you have students and faculty and administrators who have an antagonistic relationship with one another, which happens in some schools, then it might be very difficult for some students to go to administrators when they feel threatened or worried about their safety,” he said.
In Ohio, about 6 percent of the state’s high school students missed at least one day of school last year because they feared for their safety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Almost a quarter of those students — 22.7 percent — said they had been bullied on school property, and about 9 percent said they had been involved in a fight at school.
Meanwhile, high school students are arming themselves at an alarming rate. More than 16 percent in Ohio said they carried a weapon in 2011, up from just over 4 percent in 2005, according to the survey.
School officials are quick to point out that statistically, schools are still the safest places for children — even safer than being at home. But a perception of danger — regardless of what the statistics say — can retard the learning process in a multitude of ways.
Addressing the concerns of children who feel unsafe should be priority for every school, said Springfield City School District Superintendent David Estrop.
School safety and student performance “go together hand in glove,” Estrop said, and taking steps to eliminate the threat of violence only enhances students’ ability to learn.
Estrop traces his district’s improvement in test scores — he said Springfield is the state’s only high-poverty urban district to be rated “effective,” or the equivalent of a “B” letter grade — to steps taken to improve the students’ environment for learning.
“We have improved over the last 10 years from what was an F, or academic emergency,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind we have made progress as a result of having good school environments where the children can focus and feel safe.”
Like many school districts, Springfield has installed high-tech security equipment, including surveillance cameras and a buzzer system for visitors. The district also employs a crew of school resource officers.
But Estrop attributes much of the school district’s success in safety control to a change in attitude among students, some of whom have established their own anti-bullying programs in the middle schools and high schools and are no longer reluctant to report threatening or suspicious activity by their peers.
“I think Columbine changed everything,” Estrop said. “Before Columbine, the norm among students is that you don’t talk. You don’t rat out anybody. If you were bullied, you didn’t say anything. Now, clearly, students have come to recognize that if they don’t speak up, they could be putting themselves and their friends in danger. And educators have became a whole lot better listeners.”
No. 1 priority
Tom Henderson, superintendent of Centerville City Schools, views the school district as its own ecosystem that requires the buy-in of parents, teachers and all other stakeholders to be effective in educating and protecting its students.
“Impressing upon your students that this is an educational community, and we’re all in this together is really paramount,” Henderson said. “When you build that kind of environment, that kind of situation where there is mutual respect by all, hopefully, that transcends into that feeling of safety.”
The safety concerns in Centerville might not be as pronounced as those in other school districts: “We can go months without anything ever being reported,” Henderson said.
But school officials remain vigilant, knowing that suburban districts have been the target in many school shootings. Fights, bullying and other intimidation tactics can get in the way of the learning process in any district.
“We work hard at making sure that we do everything we can,” Henderson said. “We’re ready to talk to students if they need to talk or to support them in any way they need support. I’d like to think students feel safe at our schools, and I’d like to believe that they understand student safety is our No. 1 priority.”
No matter how dedicated schools are about ensuring the safety of their students, the grim reality is that going to school — just like going to the mall, grocery store or movie theater — will always involve a certain level of risk, Muschert said.
“Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to get hurt in a car or in the bathtub” than at school, Muschert said. “But we’re not going to stop driving or using the bathtub because we have a risk tolerance for those activities.
As of last week, more than 450 teachers and other school employees from around Ohio had applied for 24 spots in a free firearms training program being funded by the Buckeye Firearms Association foundation.
Ken Hanson, the legal chairman for the association, said the Sandy Hook shooting was the “breaking point,” and the group decided “it’s time to quit talking about it and move forward.”
At the end of the three-day course, participants will be given the same firearms tests administered to law enforcement officers.
“If they can’t qualify, they shouldn’t be carrying a gun,” said John Benner, a former member of the Hamilton County regional SWAT team who owns the Tactical Defense Institute, which is doing the training.
Muschert cautioned against turning schools into armed camps.
“The contradiction with schools is that our risk tolerance is really low, almost zero,” he said. “It’s such an emotional topic that people cannot engage in reasonable conversation and say there’s only so much we can do, and if we keep adding more and more safety measures beyond that it’s not going to help.
“And some of the punitive measures like zero-tolerance policies and police in schools, might actually have some negative consequences for many of the students.”
Staff Writer Jill Kelley contributed to this story.