Safety and security in schools has always been an important topic in the public forum, but it’s jumped to the top of the news cycle as the cultural eye focuses on recent school shootings. Despite immense pressure from the public to “do something,” no clear-cut guide on improving school safety exists. While many people are concerned about gun violence and school shootings, according to a 2020 report from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), schools have reported fewer violent incidents in general since 2010. Unfortunately, homicides with multiple victims have become more frequent.
Many schools lack the resources to deal with the key issues underlying school violence: mental health, bullying and cyberbullying, and truancy. However, effective strategies are available for dealing with school safety issues, and school systems across the country rely on safety experts to put these methods to work to enhance security for schools.
School Safety Issues
According to a report from the National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), no typical student attacker exists, and attempting to profile students doesn’t help reduce school violence. Students can perpetrate violence regardless of gender, academic performance, social status or family life. Issues related to school violence are difficult to monitor, especially bullying or mental health problems that might become obvious outside the school grounds.
To combat these issues, school staff and administrators must band together and create a security threat assessment that uses students and faculty to identify individuals who may be struggling or even considering violent actions. By being proactive, this assessment addresses problems quickly and discreetly before they become potentially violent disasters.
Security for Schools: Security Threat Assessment
By developing a threat assessment, school staff may discover considerably more about a student’s potential for violence than if it only focused on personality or academic achievement. Those conducting the security threat assessment should gather pertinent information regarding the student’s communications and actions, negative or stressful experiences, and resources for helping students with such issues. Here are recommended steps to build an effective security threat assessment to help safeguard students and faculty in schools.
1. Build a Multidisciplinary Team
Establishing a multidisciplinary threat assessment team of people who oversee, manage and record the threat assessment process is the first stage in creating a complete, targeted violence prevention strategy. The team’s role is to collect reports regarding troublesome individuals and their circumstances, determine the risk to the school community, and create management and intervention plans to lessen any danger.
Regardless of how its work is shared, the team should be diverse in terms of backgrounds and disciplines within the school system. This representation helps ensure that the team hears multiple perspectives and that it has no preconceptions or biases: favoring or disciplining students based on race, class or disability.
2. Define Concerning Behavior
The security threat assessment process should establish policies identifying inappropriate conduct that calls for quick intervention, such as using threats of force, bringing a weapon on school grounds, harassing or bullying, or engaging in other illegal or egregious actions. Policies for schools should also recognize actions that may not always be signs of violence but call for some response, as there’s a spectrum of behavior that should cause concern.
A significant drop in performance, excessive absences, isolation from social settings, abrupt or dramatic changes in behavior or appearance, drug or alcohol use, depression, and other emotional or mental health symptoms are a few indications that a student may need assistance or intervention. These behaviors should be reported early and responded to quickly, allowing the student to receive counseling, mental health care or academic assistance before the behavior affects other students and faculty.
3. Reporting Methods
When a student acts out enough to concern someone, the concerned individual should have ready, anonymous access to a means or policy to report any concerns to the threat assessment team. Schools can establish one or more reporting methods, such as a dedicated email address or phone number, platforms for mobile applications, or another option available to a specific school community. Teams must ensure that someone actively monitors all incoming reports and is prepared to act quickly when anyone might be in danger.
There should be an option for submitting reports anonymously, regardless of the mechanism used by schools to collect these complaints. Anonymity is crucial because students are more likely to report worrying or threatening material if they can do so without worrying about facing any consequences, even if it’s only a subconscious concern. The school community should believe that team members will listen to its concerns and act on complaints discreetly and professionally.
4. Decide When to Involve Law Enforcement
Involving law enforcement in a potential incident should be a last resort. Most incidents that students or faculty may report don’t need to involve law enforcement. Often, visiting a counselor or using school and community resources can remedy issues with depression, threats of suicide, bullying, self-harm or substance abuse. However, if there are threats of violence or concerns about student safety, it may become necessary to involve law enforcement.
School policing doesn’t significantly decrease on-campus violence and mass shootings, according to the Center for Public Integrity. It’s frequently detrimental to students of color and those with disabilities. When police enforcement or school resource officers are present in schools, behavioral issues can increase, and there may be an uptick in suspensions, expulsions and arrests. Law enforcement should be involved sparingly so as not to disrupt students’ lives.
Tips to Ensure Safety in Schools
While no foolproof answer to making schools completely safe exists, some strategies have been shown to improve the quality of security for schools. Here are a few tips for improving safety in schools.
1. Invest in Training
To prepare for an emergency involving a potential threat of violence, faculty should be able to perform exercises, ask questions and provide feedback to an emergency response team. In a worst-case scenario, faculty must be capable of confidently taking command while also acting as a guide and a calming presence for students.
2. Establish an ID-Required Entry Policy
Preventing danger from occurring is the most effective school safety measure. A policy that requires ID at the door can help reduce or even eliminate threats. The only people permitted to enter the school grounds would be those with a school ID. This procedure can secure the primary entrance and be a tactical move toward school safety.
3. Encourage Students to Take the Initiative
Students are essential to maintaining safety and security in a school, as they’ll often see or hear things that no faculty member will have the chance to. They may see and know what faculty members do not and may alert appropriate staff members to potential threats.
If students believe that faculty can be trusted and will respect their confidentiality, they’ll be more likely to come forward to make a report if they feel necessary. Similarly, confidential and anonymous options should be available to encourage students to make reports even if they aren’t comfortable speaking directly with faculty.
4. Secure Entrances and Exits
Door and window locks are critical safety and security features. Locks must be simple to operate yet strong enough to deter attacks and secure a classroom full of children and teachers.
5. Emphasize the Importance of Security
The administration should make clear the significance of school security and the teachers’ roles in achieving and maintaining that security. The administration should ensure that faculty understand the importance of practicing school safety and how to keep the students safe in an emergency.
Prepare for a Future in Occupational Safety
Everyone wants safety in schools to be a national priority, and detailed strategies like a security threat assessment can help administrators, staff, teachers, parents and the students themselves become part of the solution. Just as important, schools need professionals in security and safety management to help them design policies and procedures that work for their unique students and communities.
Individuals who are interested in playing a role in keeping schools safe for learning can explore Eastern Kentucky University’s online Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety. This degree delves into topics ranging from employee safety education to regulatory compliance to policy and enforcement.
Discover the education that can help you make a difference in the safety and security of others’ lives with Eastern Kentucky University.
School Safety Resource Guide for Teachers and Administrators
How to Form a School Emergency Response Team (SERT)
School Safety: A Growing Concern in Violent Times
Center for Public Integrity, “When Schools Call Police on Kids”
COPS Office, “Ten Essential Actions to Improve School Safety”
LockOutUSA, School Safety Precautions for Staff and Students School Safety, “Foundational Elements of School Safety” National Education Association, “Making Schools Safe and Just”
National Threat Assessment Center, “Protecting America’s Schools: Analysis of Targeted School Violence”
Office of Justice Programs, “Making Schools Safe for Students”
Office of Justice Programs, “What Do the Data Reveal About Violence in Schools?”
U.S. Secret Service, “Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence”