National News

Schools are safer, even if they feel less so

Posted April 19, 2019 7:18 p.m. EDT
Updated April 20, 2019 11:14 a.m. EDT

Present your driver’s license to be scanned and verified. Have your photograph taken. Pass your belongings through a metal detector. Welcome to your child’s school.

Twenty years after the Columbine High School shooting, a school visit can feel like going to the airport.

See-through backpacks and armed officers are common sights on campus. So are “run, hide, fight” trainings, full of tips on how to survive an active shooter. Some days might bring lockdown drills that students are not told in advance are rehearsals, not real threats. And in rare cases, the adult teaching algebra or social studies might be armed.

Hundreds of millions of public dollars have been spent “hardening” schools against every parent’s nightmare: something like the 1999 shooting in which two students killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher at a Colorado high school, and set off an enduring debate on gun violence and the safety of the nation’s schools.

But ramping up security never relieved anxieties. Americans believe schools are more unsafe today than they were two decades ago, according to a new poll — even as federal data shows that by most measures, schools have become safer.

In some ways, the panic and dark legacy of Columbine brought to suburban and rural schools some of the fears and pressure that urban students of color had already been living under. In the 1990s, the crime rate at schools and in larger society was beginning a historic decline. But the myth of the “superpredator” — a generation of youth who were said to be inherently violent — led to more police officers and metal detectors in urban schools. Administrators doled out harsh punishments for ordinary infractions such as fighting and truancy, ranging from suspensions and expulsions to referrals to the criminal justice system.

For many children in urban centers, school hardening began long before the image of gunmen stalking classrooms was seared into the national consciousness.

A survey in March of 1,063 adults by The Associated Press and the NORC Center at the University of Chicago found that 74% of parents of school-age children, and 64% of nonparents, believed schools were more unsafe today than they were in 1999. Only 35% of parents said they felt “very confident” that their child was safe at school.

The seemingly endless string of mass shootings has certainly not helped. Newtown. Parkland. Santa Fe.

Just this week, hundreds of schools across Colorado were closed while officials frantically searched for an armed woman who they said had made threats and was “infatuated” with Columbine.

Half the respondents in the AP-NORC poll said bullying deserved “a great deal” of the blame for school shootings, and 48% said the availability of guns was “a great deal” to blame.

Their fears run counter to the data presented in a federal report released this week. School is still among the safest places an American child can be.

Homicide is a leading cause of death for American youths, but the vast majority of those deaths take place at home or in the neighborhood. Between 1992 and 2016, just 3% of youth homicides and 1% of youth suicides took place at school, according to the federal report.

School crime levels decreased between 2001 and 2017. The number of students between 12 and 18 who reported being the victim of a violent crime at school during the past six months dropped from 2% to 1%. Incidents of theft, physical fights, the availability of illegal drugs and bullying also went down.

These changes echo the national drop in crime.

When school shootings did take place in recent years, they were typically the result of personal altercations, relationship violence or robberies, according to research from Everytown for Gun Safety, an anti-gun organization.

The unique horror of mass shootings means they occupy a central place in parents’ fears, and in the nation’s political debate about gun access and school safety, even though they remain rare. There were 37 active-shooter incidents at U.S. schools between 2000 and 2017, an average of two to three such episodes per year. Those events resulted in 67 people being killed and 86 wounded, according to the federal data.

The most notorious school shootings have taken place at suburban, predominantly white schools. But students of color are disproportionately affected by more typical gun violence. Fourteen percent of Native American students and 8% of black students reported being threatened or injured by a weapon at school in 2017, compared with 5% of white students, according to the federal report.

Experts caution that schools should avoid overpreparing for mass shootings and should instead focus on more typical threats to students’ safety. Those include mental health problems, family trauma, severe weather, traffic accidents on or near school grounds and child abductions because of custody disputes.

When it comes to hardening schools, policymakers “are spending money that is not effective,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, professor of health science at Ball State University and an author of a new study that found no evidence that any of the common expenditures on campus security have decreased gun violence. He warned that the money spent on school security came with opportunity costs: fewer funds for nurses, guidance counselors or academic enrichment, as well as less political pressure on addressing the widespread availability of guns.

“You walk into a school and you are almost in a military zone,” Khubchandani said. “Is that conducive to education?”