Save Our Schools

Obama’s $120 Million School Safety Plan

Metal detectors and school safety officers might help when it comes to school shootings, but the real answer is early detection. Obama’s 2015 plan budgets for just that.

Video surveillance, school safety officers, concrete barriers, and metal detectors are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to preventing shootings in schools (PDF).

School safety experts suggest the best strategies for preventing school shooting complement those approaches, which they refer to as “target hardening,” or making targets more difficult to attack. People like Beverly Kingston, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder, suggest that halting school violence starts much earlier.

“Overall, you want to have a positive school climate, so how do you get to that result?” Kingston said. “We want to train schools to detect problems early, and we want to deal with things a lot sooner than when the kid’s really in trouble.”

President Obama’s 2015 budget proposal includes $120 million to create safe schools and intervene early in the childhoods of troubled children, aiming at reducing bullying and boosting children with specific mental health needs. $25 million is reserved for schools with high levels of violence, to help students deal with trauma and anxiety from the dangers they face—and to help prevent more violence. Another $50 million is meant to train teachers and staff in evidence-based strategies that reduce violence and bullying.

The approach is part of the Secret Service’s report on school shootings, made in May 2002 (PDF). The most immediate approach is to make it safe for other students to report their concerns anonymously, since the report found that in about 81 percent of the cases they studied, other children knew something. In Colorado, a free anonymous hotline called Safe2Tell was set up after the Columbine Commission’s report to give young people a way to report danger without fear of retaliation.

What’s more, in 93 percent of shootings, the Secret Service report found that there were warning signs. Those signs may not indicate a serious problem in all children, but children who show them may be in danger of violence if they aren’t helped. Screening and assessment for trauma and violence may help make schools safer, Kingston said.

“We work with a physician who has a risk of violence screening tool,” Kingston told The Daily Beast. “It’s kids who score high on that that are more likely to engage in some kind of delinquent act or do something violent within a year. If we screen, we can get kids the resources they need to prevent these things from occurring.”

Mass shootings are the most visible form of violence in school, but nonfatal crime is also a part of creating a safe school environment, Kingston said. Among children ages 12 to 18, nonfatal crimes at schools increased to 52 victimizations per 1,000 students in 2012 (the most recent data available), up from 35 per 1,000 in 2010. That increase is the first after almost two decades of steady decline, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. About 10 to 30 kids from ages 5 to 18 die from a homicide each year at school, or while en route. That’s 1 percent of all child homicides, and the rate hasn’t wavered much.

That goes back to creating a safe climate for students, said David Osher, the vice president of the American Institutes for Research, a behavioral science group. “Most of the violence in schools isn’t from shootings,” Osher said. “Our goal is making everything as safe as possible.”

In 1998, Osher served on an expert panel after a shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. The most important thing, he and these experts agreed, was finding an environment where slights never escalate to violence. That means supporting parents and helping them raise emotionally healthy children, making sure children aren’t in harsh environments, and teaching children how to regulate their own emotions. These kinds of supports start as early as preschool, Osher said.

“That is really critical preventatively because what happens is when kids come in, and they have a hard time regulating their emotions, they have a tougher time establishing relationships and controlling their behavior,” Osher said. “And what often happens is that the teachers aren’t prepared to respond to them in a way that reduces their problem behavior.”

Dealing with kids’ emotional self-regulation as early as kindergarten or first grade can be like a vaccine against violence, Osher said. While target hardening isn’t a bad idea, this method may prevent schools from being a target at all—for school shootings, or for lower-level aggression and bullying.