How can we keep students safe at school?

Photo of students

Acts of violence at school such as bullying, fighting, and even highly publicized school shootings place immense pressure on educators, school leaders, parents, community members, and legislators to better ensure the safety of their students and secure schools. However, what keeps students “safe” can vary depending on the school environment, student population, neighboring community, and how we even define “safe.” A comprehensive approach to keeping students safe at school requires balancing approaches to improve and maintain a positive school climate, student mental and behavioral well-being programs, strategies to prevent and mitigate violence, and physical security mechanisms. There is a growing body of research and promising practices from which we can select different options to keep our students both emotionally and physically safe at school.

Social-emotional security

In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that when students feel connected to their schools, its staff, and their peers, violence is less likely to occur. On the other hand, research such as the Adverse Childhood Experiences study shows that children who have experienced trauma and other adverse experiences, such as violence or abuse early in life, are at a higher risk of physical and mental illness well into adulthood. How can we support all students to feel emotionally secure in and outside the classroom?

Strategies such as integrated social-emotional learning (SEL) curricula, routine mental health screenings, connecting students with needs to appropriate mental health resources, and community-building and relationship-building practices are all ways schools can recognize and promote students’ well-being and emotional security. Despite limited resources, many schools are prioritizing their students’ social-emotional security and incorporating some aspect of mental health supports into their curriculum and daily practices. In fact, to date, three states (Florida, New York, and Virginia) currently mandate mental health education for all their K-12 students. Please read our blog post describing 5 strategies to incorporate mental health education in schools to support student mental health for more information.

By proactively identifying and supporting at-risk students, schools can play a crucial role in increasing the social-emotional safety and security for all students and staff. By using evidence-based interventions that support students who have experienced trauma and violence, schools can help students learn skills to manage their emotions and relax their bodies, de-escalate tense situations, and build and maintain strong connections with others.

Our own Student Behavior Research Team has studied a number of promising programs that yield improved behavioral and academic outcomes for students, such as the Cognitive Behavior Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS) program, a group intervention for middle and high school students who have experienced traumatic stress. Participants in the CBITS groups show reduced trauma symptoms, internalizing behavior disorders, and improved academic achievement. Similarly, children who participated in First Step to Success, a classroom-based behavioral intervention that targets early elementary school children who are at risk for antisocial or aggressive behaviors, showed fewer problem behaviors and internalizing symptoms and improved academic competence.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), and the Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development are just a few more resources that offer other evidence-based programs designed to improve student well-being, reduce antisocial behavior, increase social and emotional resilience, and promote a healthy course of youth development. We encourage you to take a look at their registries of programs and practices that range from broad prevention to highly individualized intervention programs to see what might fit for your family, school, or community.

The National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention recommends clearly defining the multifaceted role of SROs as being “an educator, informal counselor, and law enforcement problem-solver.” Specialized training on student mental health, adolescent development and communication, implicit bias, and age-appropriate de-escalation techniques can help SROs more effectively support students.

Physical security

Physical security mechanisms to keep students safe on school campuses can be obvious, such as locked gates or metal detectors, or they can be virtually undetectable, like intentional architecture design or bullet-proof windows. Because of the recent escalation in school shootings, there have been large increases in funding for improving the physical security of school campuses and the staff’s preparation for crises. Since the fatal school shooting in Parkland, FL, more than 26 states have increased spending on school safety with an emphasis on security upgrades and school resource officers (SROs). These measures can include some or all of the following: installing metal detectors, safe rooms, and secure fencing; arming authorized adults with firearms; conducting threat assessment and active shooter trainings; and employing school-based law enforcement officers.

One of the most popular physical security trends seen today is an increase in the presence of police or SROs on school campuses. Proponents argue that SROs can combat school attacks, deescalate incidents of violence and aggression between students and/or staff, and deter internal and external threats. Many students with SROs on their campuses do feel safer; for example, according to findings from a 2018 Baltimore Public School District student survey, 70% of students agreed that SROs contribute positively to school climate and safety.

Conversely, other data reveal that the presence of SROs may incite anxiety and fear among some students. Citing data from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), the ACLU reported that students with disabilities and students of color particularly feel this negative impact. Furthermore, the CRDC and state incident reports show that SROs often intervene with students for minor offensives that otherwise would not be criminalized, such as cursing and refusing to follow instructions, which can lead to other excessive consequences.

While the current body of research on school policing is limited, more schools are opting to include SROs as a component of their safety plans. The National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention recommends clearly defining the multifaceted role of SROs as being “an educator, informal counselor, and law enforcement problem-solver.” Specialized training on student mental health, adolescent development and communication, implicit bias, and age-appropriate de-escalation techniques can help SROs more effectively support students.

Although the jury is still out on the impact of SROs on school safety and climate, the concepts of intentional school architecture and innovative technology are advancing the physical safety of schools in other ways. For example, after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the school was torn down, reconstructed, and reopened in 2016. The campus is now equipped with some of today’s most advanced yet discrete safety features: it is built above ground-level to keep students out of clear sight, classrooms are fitted with bullet-resistant windows, and angled outdoor planters create distance between classrooms and walkways to limit outsiders’ clear view and access. A 20-foot high atrium allows staff to see anyone who enters campus from three contained entry points, and state-of-the-art cameras surveil the hallways 24 hours a day. While less overt and obvious, these design features offer creative and “unseen” options as they reduce vulnerabilities and heighten security.

Keeping students happy, healthy, and safe at school is a balancing act of finite resources. Depending on each school’s structure, priorities, and capacities, there are different ways that you can take advantage of the various strategies to increase both social-emotional and physical security. Taking a comprehensive and collaborative approach can help all students and staff feel safe and supported at school.

More resources on school-based mental health and SEL:

For more information about how to promote a strong school community and support the physical and social-emotional security of students, please check out these other helpful resources:

Topics: Mental health School climate Secondary intervention

Tags: CBITS Cognitive Behavior Intervention for Trauma in Schools First step to success School safety