School Safety: Why Focusing on Security is Not Enough

September 5 2013


  • William Grace Frost, Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters
    William Grace Frost
    Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters

Since 1999, in the aftermath of the Columbine High School tragedy, our nation has invested more than $10 billion on what has been called ‘school safety and climate improvement’ measures. In truth, the vast majority of those dollars have been expended on ‘security’ or what we call at Community Matters, the 'Outside-In Approach.' This approach focuses first and foremost on ‘keeping the bad guys out’ with security measures like bullet-proof glass, metal detectors and perimeter fencing which are all intended to keep children safe from the ingress of external dangers.

Outside-in security also includes heavy reliance on the power and authority of adults to keep schools safe. It places primary importance on controlling student behavior through measures like instituting lockdowns, increasing security personnel, installing cameras on playgrounds and in hallways, signing “bully-free pledges” and the implementation of punitive rules and policies.

But let’s not confuse the implementation of ‘security’ measures with ‘being safe’. In spite of these enormous control-oriented investments in equipment, personnel and policy, and despite the fact that 49 out of 50 states have passed anti-bullying laws, too many students in too many schools all across America still experience high levels of insecurity in diminished learning environments due to the daily impact of bullying, cyberbullying and harassment. While security is an important part of the safety equation, what we know now, fourteen years later, is that these outside-in security measures alone are insufficient in making systemic, sustained changes in safe school cultures.

And everyday bullying, cyberbullying and harassment are increasingly more pervasive and persistent. Mean behavior in all its many forms is occurring at younger ages; due in large part to the prevalence of bullying through social media, bullying has become easier for kids to do and harder for adults to identify. Worse yet, growing indifference as demonstrated by an increase in bystander behavior has created an almost normalization of incivility and intolerance in youth culture – “Don’t snitch, don’t get involved, it’s not your problem.”

Metal detectors can’t keep out prejudice and zero tolerance policies don’t control student behavior when adults aren’t around. Check any news outlet on any given day, and you’ll see the proof that peer-to-peer mistreatment continues to permeate our schools, sometimes driving our children to unimaginable consequences.

Researchers at the University of Indiana found that there is no measurable evidence that heightened security or zero tolerance policies significantly reduce school violence. It’s understandable that as adults we are scared for our children, but the unintended consequences of disproportionately skewing our efforts towards outside-in security have been very expensive to all involved – our students, the staff, the learning climate, as well as, for school’s budgets.

Schools will only become safer with a re-focusing of values, direction, priorities and allocation of resources. The data shows that the key to creating safer schools – as well as increasing attendance, achievement and graduation rates – is to adopt what we call the ‘Inside-Out Approach.’

Noted author and bullying researcher, Dorothy Espelage clearly states that for schools to be safe and for system-wide, sustainable change to take place in school culture, “Bullying interventions need to change the conditions in the social environment that permit bullying to occur.”

Community Matters’ Inside-Out Approach does just that; it focuses on the interpersonal dynamics between students and staff as the fundamental way to improve safety and climate. It’s based on years of research, development and testing, and consists of four core elements:

  1. Relationships - creating opportunities for students, staff, parents, families and the broader community to fully connect with one another, to build trust and mutual respect, and to maintain clear, open channels of communication;
  2. Student-Centered - empowering young people by involving them in leadership opportunities, real-life problem-solving, decision-making and solution implementation;
  3. Formative and Restorative Policies - utilizing practices like peer courts and community service that in order to improve future behavior, encourage students learn from their mistakes and to make amends to those they’ve wronged;
  4. Social Norms Change - guiding and changing behavior, not through rules and policies, but rather through establishing the social norms, which can be changed by students.

When educational leaders commit to the Inside-Out Approach, the result is a more positive school climate. Students experience a sense of safety, have healthier relationships with both peers and adults, feel respected and empowered, and are more likely to succeed academically and socially. Furthermore, the Inside-Out approach is enormously more cost effective. In fact, when inside-out approaches like our Safe School Ambassadors program are implemented with integrity, they can even help schools recover thousands of dollars.

For example, one indicator of a healthy, safe environment is the low level of student suspensions. A low suspension rate is an indicator of social norms built on the mutual respect of students, staff and administration, as well as, student feelings of empathy, empowerment and choice.

And, suspensions are expensive. For every day that a student is absent from school the district loses approximately $100 in daily attendance funding which for most districts in the United States, adds up to tens of thousands in lost income. Additionally, the processing of suspensions takes an average of two hours of an administrator’s time to sift through the “he said – she said” stories, create the mandated paper trail, contact and meet with the parents, and so on. This inordinate amount of expended time can also add up to tens of thousands of dollars. When implemented as designed, the Safe School Ambassadors program has been shown to reduce suspensions by 33%, saving schools enormous amounts of time and money while making them more safe, welcoming and inclusive.

The day that we can say that our children are truly safe at school will be when schools have fully embraced a balanced, holistic approach that includes not only external security, but also when they have successfully institutionalized the Inside-Out Approach. Doing this requires a commitment to the transformation of school climate as the foundation – the ‘bricks and mortar’ – for building safe, thriving and high-performing schools.

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