School security and the teacher’s role
On April 20, 1999, a pair of twelfth-grade students made their way through the halls of Columbine High. Their actions that day sent shockwaves through the nation that continue to resound 2 decades on. Heightened fears about school security led to an unprecedented focus on safety protocols, including new statutes and regulations put into place to keep schools safe. Approaches to safety measures have tended towards preparing for potential shootings rather than preventing them. The 2012 Sandy Hook and 2018 Parkland shootings precipitated the highest number of laws aimed at preparedness since 1999. New policies continue to be developed, but new problems are also emerging. Teachers have become first responders, creating a need for additional training and fundamentally altering the teaching profession.
Gun violence in schools
Although Columbine was not the first school shooting in America, it appears to have heralded an epidemic of so-called rampage shootings. These are typically unconnected to personal or gang disputes, involve multiple non-specific targets, and tend to occur in suburban settings. Gun violence at schools been described as an “overwhelmingly American form of violence” and it is still not well-understood why it is growing in frequency even as rates of other types of victimization, including bullying, are declining. Since Columbine, there have been 730 incidents of school gun violence involving guns being brandished or discharged.
At least 57% of all U.S. teens fear a shooting may happen at their school, and 4 out of 10 K-12 students report feeling unsafe at school.
Gun law reform at the federal level has been slow, with most changes happening at the state level. The approach has been preparation rather than prevention. Lockdown drills have become notorious. At least 57% of all U.S. teens fear a shooting may happen at their school, and 4 out of 10 K-12 students report feeling unsafe at school. Amidst all this, the pressure on teachers to keep students safe has become enormous, with the expectation that they will play counselors, confidants, and protectors in addition to their primary roles. The responsibility can be overwhelming, and teachers need as many tools and resources as possible to successfully manage their expanding roles.
Overburdened and undervalued
In many respects, the teaching profession has gone the way of other professions that are majority-female, focused on care, and frequently underpaid, such as nursing and social work. These are also professions where burnout is the norm. In addition to being overburdened, teachers are also underprepared. When it comes to keeping children and teens safe at school, there tends to be much talk about the creation of new policies, yet their enactment primarily falls on teachers (who are also rarely part of policy design). There has also been a consistent disconnect between expectations (both formal and informal) and the training provided to teachers. In a March 2018 survey, 93% of teachers reported wanting additional safety training on an ongoing basis, but less than half have received it.
A lack of school counselors
Another significant factor in the increasing burden on teachers is the widespread shortage of school counselors. About 1 in 5 students don’t have any access to a school counselor. In fact, the ratio of students to counselors across the country is 424 to 1 (the American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 ratio). The ratio of counselors to students has decreased by 1% every school year since 1987, and is currently at recommended levels only in New Hampshire, Vermont, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Students of color and those from low-income families are disproportionately affected by the lack of counselors.
Counselors are also far better equipped to address subtle behavioral changes and other warning signs in time to prevent both minor and major school violence.
When it comes to addressing the emotional and mental-health aspects of school violence, counselors are key. The education they undergo is almost entirely focused on the psychosocial development of children and teens as well as active intervention strategies, which are secondary or completely lacking in teacher training. Counselors are also far better equipped to address subtle behavioral changes and other warning signs in time to prevent both minor and major school violence.
Yet instead of efforts to improve the counselor-to-student ratio, the focus has been on increasing policing at schools, with ever-growing numbers of school resource officers (SROs) being deployed, despite evidence that their presence does not prevent or stop school shootings. The increasing presence of SROs is a major contributor to the school-to-prison pipeline and leads to the criminalization of non-serious issues like tardiness and cursing.
Violence prevention that works
Many of the changes to the teaching profession over the past few decades are here to stay, as they’re a reflection of societal changes and associated student needs. However, some safety practices and policies are far more effective than others. Prevention of violent incidents is obviously preferable to preparation for such incidents, though both are necessary. Teachers also need to be formally trained in effective techniques.
Evidence-based practices such as multi-tiered systems of support and trauma-informed classroom management have shown promise in recent years. What these practices have in common is that they’re role-appropriate (not expecting teachers to act too far outside their formal remit) and focused on the interdependence of factors that contribute to violence. For example, trauma-informed classrooms treat student behavior in a way that’s guided by recent research into both the prevalence of childhood trauma and the ways children’s nervous systems, and thus behaviors, are shaped by trauma.
The multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) approach addresses violence in schools as a factor deeply intertwined with other factors rather than a standalone issue, fully integrating social-emotional, behavioral, and academic support. The MTSS approach also ensures special support is evidence-based, that its implementation is systematized, and that responsibility for implementation is spread out across school staff instead of disproportionately falling on teachers.
We originally approached the president of the National School and Safety Security Services, Kenneth S. Trump, to ask whether he or his staff would be interested in writing this article for us and received the following reply:
“An uptick in demands with the return to in-person learning, including 4 school shootings and escalated violence nationally, time constraints do not provide us the availability to write for you.”
Despite many worrying trends, schools are still statistically recognized as safe spaces for children. Although it is necessary for teachers to prepare for the worst, awareness and support are where they have the most impact. Security guidelines, procedures, and protocols are all necessary to provide a safe learning environment, but it’s the presence of teachers and the way they communicate and connect with their students that creates a safe haven for social and academic development. Students want to matter, have agency, and be heard, and teachers are often the unsung heroes who listen.