Hard Lessons in School Safety

Hard Lessons in School Safety

Violence in schools continues to dominate our nation. The recent shooting at Northern Arizona University is just another case in a long line of school shootings. So why are school shootings still so prevalent? More importantly, what can be done to improve school safety and limit classroom violence?

The most important factors, beyond the psychology of the perpetrator and the raging debates about gun laws, are how the media portrays the violence and how our schools can best prevent, and be prepared for, violence. With studies linking the spread of school shootings to media coverage and reports of many schools being unprepared for these events, it's clear that change is in order.

This issue is not black and white, as there's no singular blame that can be placed on these complex shootings. In reality, it is much more complicated than addressing the perceived reason for the violence. Was the shooter a loner? What role did the victims play in the events leading up to the shooting?

In an attempt to dig into what can limit these tragic events, here is what needs to change. Now.

Media Repercussions

Turning on the news, thumbing through websites on your phone, and opening newspapers are how we get our information; we see each story through the lens of the media and we accept the facts given to us. But, with constant reports of the media misrepresenting facts about school shootings, are we giving the media too much power in shaping our thoughts around a tragedy?

One of the main problems with how the media treats a violent school occurrence is the attention that the perpetrator receives. In many cases, news outlets will give out entirely too much information: they will name the shooter, describe them, detail the crime, number the victims, and even compare them to other attackers. If a potential shooter is motivated by notoriety, they can be assured they will receive it. This leads us to really consider the connection between mass shootings and news media, namely the power of a contagious influence.

The media needs to eliminate the shooter as the focal point for stories and instead focus on the victims, their families, and highlight what could have been done to prevent this in the first place. Did the school have metal detectors? Were there warning signs? What type of counseling system does the school have? The news outlets should be responsible for discussing solutions, not the shooter. 

Taking Care of Students

Whether a student is entering their first day of kindergarten or finishing their final exam in college, the sad fact is that they are currently at risk due to insufficient security in schools. So, what can be done to protect students inside the classroom?

First of all the problem needs to be properly addressed, and this means ramping up time, money, and resources on helping students who are distressed or troubled. In this day and age, being bullied and ostracized are all too common for students. The torment from school even carries over into home life in the form of cyberbullying. The rise in cyberbullying continues to escalate and even acts as motivation for some shooters.

This leads us to question the amount of time and care that is being put into having real, in-depth conversations with students about ongoing struggles. An increased amount of regimented counseling sessions for all students, as well as continuing education about anti-bullying, could make for a more transparent and ultimately safer classroom. Schools must also assess the attitude of students towards any safety measures they may have in place.

“We need to put more focus on the general welfare of students and consider how safety measures affect their mindset,” says school psychologist Bob Nelson. “Many schools have actually reduced their use of metal detectors and random searches because they can exacerbate anxiety among students. Schools must consider whether increased physical safety measures come at a price of reduced psychological safety. Further, most safety measures fail to tackle the underlying problem, which is why students want to act violently against their peers in the first place.”

Safety Solutions

In addition to ramping up communication and care, it is important for students to be aware of the best practices in the event of a classroom threat. Establishing multiple scenarios for drills on a regular basis enables students to react to a harrowing situation with the right knowledge. In tandem, law enforcement should also be well versed in the layout of every school in their area and run their own drills as well.

There has also been a wave of technological advances in the school security industry. What if you could have a relatively impenetrable classroom door designed by a Swat Team member, or a set of bulletproof whiteboards? It is solutions like this that can help aid students in the event of a tragedy, as they provide an increased sophistication to protection in dire situations. They may not solve the actual problem, but they enhance classroom safety regardless.

“School safety is a countrywide priority, and we owe it to students to ensure that the methods used to advance safety actually work,” says Nelson. “The problem is, only a few violence prevention methods have yet been assessed, and even fewer have been established as effective. Meticulous, long-term evaluations are an absolute necessity if we are to tackle the root of the problem. Until we have that data, all we can do is hope the media and the school boards act as responsibly as possible.”

It is the responsibility of the media and our schools themselves to fight back against school shootings. For the media, it would be by showing restraint and support; for schools, it would be to invest in tangible methods for dealing with a tragedy, and to face these problems head-on with open dialogue. Ample time, money and energy must be put into safety evaluations or history will repeat itself – again and again. It's a long road to eliminating school violence, but this is the start we need.

Posted on Oct 27, 2015

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