Let’s Not Fail School Safety as We Have School Reform

[NOTE: This was submitted to and rejected by The State. I find that the articles and commentaries on gun control and school safety are mainly absent evidence/research, and too often the media allows unsupported claims to some because of status, not credibility. See this horrible commentary, for example.]

Political and public responses to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida are poised to make the same mistakes we have witnessed concerning school reform for four decades: focusing on in-school policies and practices only while ignoring the social impact on schools as well as the research base on those policies and practices.

As one example, Will Britt argued (The State):

My recommendations are all achievable and avoid the most controversial ideas, so that they have a chance of happening…: Install metal detectors, restrict campus and building access and connect 360-degree interior and exterior video monitoring for every public school.

And a letter to editor a couple days later suggested: “The only answer is to secure the schools like other government buildings. The shooters know schools are largely gun-free zones that have no immediate defense.”

However, the research base on security measures offers chilling facts about these solutions:

There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, and little is known about the potential for unintended consequences that may accompany their adoption.

In fact,

Research has found security strategies, such as the use of security guards and metal detectors, to be consistently ineffective in protecting students and to be associated with more incidents of school crime and disruption and higher levels of disorder in schools.

For example,

Surveillance cameras in schools may have the effect of simply moving misbehavior to places in schools or outside of schools that lack surveillance. Even more troubling, it’s possible that cameras may function as enticement to large-scale violence, such as in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter who mailed video images of himself to news outlets.

While adding security measures is a compelling emotional (and politically effective) argument, those measures may create a false sense of security and even increase the likelihood of violence. This parallels the abundance of evidence that more guns do not make us safe, but create more gun violence.

Equally important but often unmentioned, increased school security measures are typically racially biased and unfairly target black and Latinx students, even when these populations are not more violent.

US crime rates are below normal in international comparisons, but mass shootings, school shootings, and gun violence are all extreme outliers when compared to those counties. The US also has a much higher rate of police shooting and killing citizens (see Germany).

We once again face the harsh reality that, yes, the amount of guns and easy gun access are at the source of why mass and school shootings have become common place in our country, but not in other countries.

Consider that other countries have mental illness and all the complications associated with formal schooling, suggesting that these factors cannot be blamed for our gun violence. Notably, people with mental illness are less violent than the rest of the population but are far more prone to being victims of violence.

Yet, mass shootings and school shootings have more than guns in common; most of these tragedies can also be linked to angry white males who feel a sense of privilege, once combined with easy access to guns results in the loss of innocent lives.

The Parkland, Florida shooter’s violent outburst also confronts us with a truly disturbing message since the shooter himself had gone through active shooter training and knew better how to stalk his victims. Again, implementing safety measures are unlikely to make students safer and can even put them in worse danger.

Ultimately, we must resist the fatalism that gun control will not work, or that there is nothing we can do. I cannot stress enough that other countries have effectively curbed gun violence and school shootings.

As Bryan Warnick, Benjamin A. Johnson, and Sam Rocha conclude, “instead of trying to find solutions to school shootings in the dubious arms of security technologies, or even solely through more promising public policy, society should ask deeper questions about the nature of education and schooling in American society.”

More guns mean more violence, in society and schools. Gun-free zones are one approach worth considering for in-school solutions, but that simply will not be enough.

Each mass and school shooting in the US is a damning lesson we seem to refuse to learn, and as long as we focus on school policies and practices while ignoring the cancer of our larger gun culture as well as the research on what works and what doesn’t, we are doomed to mourning more needlessly lost lives.

Political, public, and media negligence is complicit in those tragedies.