Home > Uncategorized > Converting Schools into Fortresses Costs Precious Dollars, Creates Fear, Undercuts Freedom

Converting Schools into Fortresses Costs Precious Dollars, Creates Fear, Undercuts Freedom

March 7, 2018

Over the past several days I’ve read countless stories about how state legislatures have reacted to the space of school shootings that have occurred over the past several weeks and become increasingly dismayed. There appears to be an emerging consensus among politicians from the President of the United States, to Congress, to Statehouses, to State legislatures, to local mayors, to council members, and to school boards that the best way to address the problem of school shootings is to “harden” schools. This effort to make schools more difficult for shooters to enter takes many forms. It could mean better door locks, single points of entry when schools are open, the widespread use surveillance cameras, bulletproof glass in windows, panic buttons installed in each classroom, carefully developed and executed drills to prepare staff, students, local law enforcement officers, and parents for school shooting incidents, armed guards in schools in the form of school resource officers, and now even armed teachers, custodians, and cafeteria personnel. These efforts to “harden” schools have wide political appeal because they offer tangible evidence that “something” is being done and, especially at the national and state level, they are actions that can be implemented without any pushback from the advocates of the second amendment. Indeed, after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook the NRA put a panel of experts together and developed a set of recommendations that focussed on hardening schools against intruders. But there are three reasons the strategy of “hardening” schools is a flawed approach: it diverts funds from needed infrastructure improvements; it creates and reinforces needless fears in the minds of teachers, children and parents; and it teaches children that in order to survive in the world today we must restrict freedom in the name of security.

The reaction to shootings in New Hampshire where I live follows the “hardening” strategy and it appears to be gaining wide support among all constituent groups. In the aftermath of the shootings in Florida, some modest gun control bills were introduced in the legislature but all were set aside, presumably pending deliberation in the future. Governor Sununu has offered a solution that has wide support: the use of some of the allocation of $19,000,000 in 2017 surplus funds to upgrade the safety infrastructure in public schools. When the fiscal year ended with a surplus, the Governor created a School Infrastructure Safety Commission who reviewed grant proposals from school districts across the state that focussed on three areas: e-rate matches; life and safety deficiencies; and projects that improve security. The first round of grant awards awarded in January resulted in the allocation of $10 million in State matching funds for projects that included roof replacements, sprinkler system upgrades, but the lion’s are of those funds, over $7.2 million, was earmarked for an array of safety initiatives including vestibule upgrades, surveillance cameras, and upgrades of door locks, which, when added to the $2.2 million added in the second round of $3.7 million means that the State had dedicated nearly $10 million toward safety upgrades. But, as Union Leader reporter Dave Solomon noted in his January 21 report, the $19,000,000 of surplus funds fall far short of the overall facilities needs in New Hampshire:

The state grants, however appreciated, are no replacement for the annual school building aid the state once offered, though.

In 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, the Legislature approved a moratorium on state funding for new school projects, leaving local districts to their own devices. That moratorium remains in place.

What Mr. Solomon didn’t report is that the nine-year long moratorium has resulted in a backlog of $650,000,000 worth of needed infrastructure upgrades across the state, some of which may have a far greater impact on classroom instruction and the school environment than vestibule upgrades, surveillance cameras, and sophisticated door locks.

The decision to use surplus funds for these safety measures has a more far reaching effect, however. When politicians from the President to local school board members react to shootings by installing bullet-proof glass in vestibules, surveillance cameras throughout the schools, and sophisticated door locks to thwart intruders they convey a message to students. They are telling children that they live in communities where they should fear their neighbors, that they are in peril in the public schools, and that danger from gunmen is always imminent. Children look at their surroundings a conclude that this must be the case since they are in a facility that shields them from contact with community members, monitors their every movement with cameras, and trains them to seek shelter from “intruders with high-powered guns” who may enter the buildings despite all the precautionary measures in place.

And the cumulative effect on children attending these “hardened” schools is even worse. They are taught that their survival depends on monitoring every movement of people who share their space, on having armed personnel on the alert to protect them from “other people”, on reporting suspicious activities of their classmates to adults, and on knowing how to seek shelter should someone choose to attack their school.

But if spending millions on safety measures is ineffective, what can schools do? NPR’s Anya Kamenetz looked at research from two experts in school safety and concluded that a better solution would be softening schools by improving their “social and emotional health”.

“If we’re really talking about prevention, my perspective is that we should go for the public health approach,” says Ron Avi Astor at the University of Southern California, who also helped draft the plan.

A public health approach to disease means, instead of waiting for people to be rushed to emergency rooms with heart attacks or the flu, you go into the community: with vaccinations, screenings, fruits and vegetables, walking trails and exercise coaches. You screen and regulate environmental hazards, like a nearby polluting factory. You keep watch on reported cases of illness, to stop a new outbreak in its tracks.

A public health approach to school shootings, Astor explains, would be much along the same lines.

Instead of waiting for people to, again, be rushed into emergency rooms, you go into the community with preventive resources. You do your best to lower the background levels of bullying and discrimination. You track the data and perform what is called “threat assessments” on potential risks…

“No matter what you try to do by just hardening the target, we’ve learned that having the armed officers isn’t necessarily going to stop it,” says Matthew Mayer at Rutgers. “Having the metal detector or the locked doors isn’t going to stop it. The hard work is a lot more effort. You’d better start thinking in a more comprehensive manner about prevention instead of reacting.

Prevention does cost more than the one-time safety measures that “harden” schools and they take more time to institute. The researchers find that changes to school climate and culture are important issues, but neither of those are readily measured or visible.

School climate may sound fuzzy or abstract. It means the quality of relationships among the students and the adults in a school. It’s affected by the school’s approach to discipline and behavior, the availability of professionals like counselors and social workers, as well as any social-emotional curriculum taught in the classroom.

The researchers find that by working to shut down bullying, discrimination and harassment, it is possible to de-escalate conflict before it starts and intervene. They find that by focussing on prevention it is possible to create an environment in school where communication between caring adults and children is enhanced making it possible for the adults to use “education as an intervention” as opposed to punishment as an intervention.

And the researchers also reached an obvious, self-evident, but politically impossible decision based on their studies of school shootings: school shootings that result in mass killings cannot happen without access to guns designed for that purpose. In the final analysis, though, the research findings do not appeal to politicians nearly as much as the “hardening” approach. This reality notwithstanding, the researchers remain hopeful… but…

…they’ve been here before, Mayer says. A group of his colleagues wrote something similar in 2012 after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and after a group of school shootings in 2006. Mayer hopes, this time, people will be paying attention.

I remain optimistic that people are paying attention to research and recognizing that the fixes recommended by research, while costly, will also replace the children’s fear with a greater understanding of the need for compassion toward their classmates.



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