Scot R. Peterson, the school resource officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., became a pariah for never venturing into the building where a former student shot and killed 17 people and injured 15 others in February.
Public sentiment was that Peterson, a former sheriff’s deputy, had one job—to protect lives— and had failed.
But three months after that shooting another high school massacre took place, in Santa Fe, Texas. This time, one of the school’s two armed security officers did confront the shooter but was critically wounded. The officer, John Barnes, was among the 10 people injured and 10 others killed by the student gunman that day.
The two events point to the same truth: Preventing school shootings in a country awash in guns is largely futile. But that hasn’t stopped at least 10 state legislatures from pouring money into hardening buildings and campuses and hiring more police. Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a $400 million school-security bill into law even as some of the state’s public teachers stewed over their salaries and contemplated walkouts.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, wants to equip teachers with guns––an idea opposed by the nation’s two largest organizations for educators.
School security has grown into a mammoth industry since 1999, when the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., ushered in the modern era of school violence. More than a quarter of the nation’s public schools are estimated to have a daily police presence. That includes school resource officers (SROs), who are armed cops deployed by law enforcement agencies who have powers to make arrests, and security guards hired by schools to dispense discipline and keep order. Normal security guards, however, usually do not have the authority to arrest students.
In some of the nation’s largest school districts, security staff outnumbers counselors. Despite their numbers, it’s unclear how much SROs and security guards deter violence and danger. In fact, studies have found the presence of SROs leads to more students being hauled off to juvenile detention, the courts and other law enforcement agencies.
In 2016, an SRO at a South Carolina high school was fired after he was videotaped grabbing and throwing a female student as he attempted to arrest her. The girl was accused of being disruptive in class. In North Carolina, an impromptu water balloon and water gun fight in a high school cafeteria ended with a student’s arrest for spraying water on a staff member’s face and allegedly assaulting an SRO.
Ron Avi Astor, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, argues that SROs can be detrimental to a secure learning environment. In a resource guide for educators for the USC Rossier ME in School Counseling online program, Astor says decades of research shows the best approach is to forge strong relationships –– among students, between students and staff and between parents and teachers.
Cops on school campuses, Astor says, can make students feel anxious and vulnerable.
School administrators should ask themselves three questions as they attempt to balance safety and learning:
- What are your students saying? Find out what they worry about and their expectations.
- What kind of environment do you want? Too much physical security can make the school seem more dangerous. Instead of turning schools into quasi prisons, can you provide psychological safety?
- What does your school need? Match security to actual security needs and keep reviewing it.
Violent crime is rare in schools. The challenge for educators is to be prepared for emergencies, without undermining the sense of security all students need to learn best.
Alexis Anderson is a Sr. Digital PR Coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U Inc. Alexis supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health, and occupational therapy programs.