A Final Thought

Time to Change Course?

It has been a year and a half since the Sandy Hook School shooting in Newtown, Conn. The horror of that event still resonates in schools and communities across the nation. The reaction to that shooting, and to other school-based shootings and killings has been predictable. School districts have been pressed to increase security and have ended up spending thousands of dollars on security guards, cameras, fences, hardened windows and other equipment designed to keep bad people out of the schools.

While watching the purchasing frenzy last fall, I used my (November) column to raise two issues.

One questioned what was being done to our schools:

“Putting armed guards in or around schools would not have prevented the Newtown disaster nor will it safeguard other children in the future. A man with a military weapon intent on killing, for whatever reason, is going to kill. An armed guard inside or outside the school is not going to change that.

“Rather, armed guards turn schools into bunkers, separated from parents and other law-abiding citizens. It is absolutely the wrong solution and it will cost taxpayers millions of dollars that could otherwise be used to improve the schools and the educational program.”

The second, suggested that if there was money available to spend on security, a better use for that money might be to hire social workers and counselors to work in the schools, rather than security guards to police them. My thought was that most, if not all of the violence was caused by students with a problem, not by outside invaders, and that properly trained professionals might be able to identify and redirect students who have problems and see no way out other than through violence.

After I wrote the column, I wondered if I was right. Events since then suggest that I was.

Every single example of violence or potential violence in our elementary, middle and high schools that I have seen reported in the last six months involved a student or students inside the school. None involved invaders from the outside who could have been headed off by security guards, fences, doors or cameras.

In virtually every incident, whether the student exploded in violence or was planning some kind of in-school revenge, there was a description of a young person who had been bullied or who was a loner or who, students looking back recalled, was “different.”

Often the target was a teacher or administrator who was considered unfair. Sometimes it was a single student or students in general who set the perpetrator off. These were invariably young people who had a problem — a problem that had not been solved, and often a problem that students recognized but that school officials had not noticed or treated.

Just a month or so ago, when a high school student stabbed and killed another student, there were immediate calls for “more security” in the schools. It’s an understandable reaction (protect my child), but it had nothing to do with what happened. Had the school been more secure, had there been police at every door, had all visitors been screened, had there been hardened windows, the stabbing would still have taken place.

Perhaps schools have not been turned into bunkers, but increased security personnel have not prevented in-school violence. Having guards at the door interferes with easy contact among parents, teachers and students, which can exacerbate the problem, not solve it.

My suggestion six months ago was that a more productive way to spend security money would be to do a better job of what schools do — counsel and teach students and protect them from themselves and their peers. I pointed to at least one district that had hired an additional social worker as a security measure, a social worker who would try to head off that disgruntled student before he or she saw violence as the only way to make a statement or resolve a problem.

I doubt that all school violence would be eliminated if there were more professional social workers and counselors, but it certainly would prevent some instances. And I, for one, would prefer that tax money that goes to schools be spent seeking educational solutions to problems of violence rather than trying to solve them by keeping non-students outside.

With the current school year coming to an end, I hope that more school districts will consider making their buildings more secure next year by hiring educational personnel who have as their major function identifying students who need support and trying to solve the problems that could send them over the edge.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at intelled@aol.com.

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