I am a professor and researcher who has spent years working on evidence-based strategies to address school and community violence. I was also elected to a three-year term on my local school board and served during the tragic mass school shootings in the cities of Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas. Local reactions to these tragedies in my small suburban community were swift, with demands for metal detectors, increased police presence, and armed security in all schools. This reflected the national push for more funding for law enforcement in schools, arming teachers or other school staff, and increasing the use of technology for security purposes based on the perception that schools are “soft” targets. But does having more armed personnel on our school campuses really make students safer? When I voted against arming non-active-duty law enforcement in our schools, I was verbally attacked by many community members and groups who challenged my vote and dismissed it as political and/or anti-law enforcement. Regardless of whether you personally believe that having more armed individuals in schools make schools safer, my experience as a board of education (BOE) member showed me that safety-related decisions become emotional and political very quickly, particularly in the absence of comprehensive district-level school safety data.
I know that schools and districts with respectful, caring, and supportive climates report a wide range of positive outcomes for students, including higher perceptions of safety, better academic outcomes, and a stronger sense of belonging. However, decades of collaborative work between districts and local law enforcement as a result of funding and federal support was one factor that contributed to our local safety conversations focusing on the need to increase security and policing in our schools. As a researcher, I know that security upgrades and increases in policing alone do not positively impact feelings of safety within a school community. In some cases, the presence of law enforcement can have a disproportionately negative impact on students of color and students with disabilities. Like many districts in the U.S., our Board of Education was entirely white, and we lacked a system or mechanism to encourage input from people of color in our community.
One only needs to look at the news cycle in the past year to see these issues playing out in board meetings across the country, where we are hearing about board members being routinely threatened, harassed, and even physically attacked for their votes on public health protocols, diversity and equity issues, and safety. After the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, we are once again seeing a demand by some for more police and/or armed security in our schools. This environment makes it even more critical that local decision-makers have structures and systems in place to identify and target their most pressing school safety needs. School safety covers a wide range of behaviors, including (but not limited to) bullying, harassment, threats, physical fights, sexual assault, suicide, gang activity, hate speech, weapon carrying, and sometimes, but rarely, homicide. If local data shows that 60% of students in a district report having been bullied in the past year, but less than 1% report seeing a weapon on school grounds, it makes sense to focus resources on districtwide bullying prevention (which may, in fact, be driving any weapon carrying), rather than increasing policing or security. To keep schools safe over time, it is critical that districts base decisions on valid data collected from all school stakeholders, and that any new programs and/or policies are evidence-based, targeted, and evaluated over time for effectiveness.
Many of you who are district policymakers are thinking “this sounds great,” however, you lack the resources and/or staff to conduct districtwide safety-related data collection and analysis. Local boards of education would benefit from both consultation and support from school safety researchers to collect and analyze local data. School safety researchers at universities or government agencies are the ones who create and evaluate effective, evidence-based programs that show long-term efficacy in preventing violence and increasing feelings of safety in schools. However, it is often by chance, rather than purposeful collaboration, that discussions of these programs make it to the board table. Successful collaborative work could result in a) local decision-makers having access to information on different evidence-based school safety programs and the most current research trends, b) districts having the support of experts to assess their safety needs and adopt the most appropriate programs and policies, and c) school safety researchers working directly with local decision-makers to assess and adapt programs or policies due to the likelihood of changing needs and conditions over time.
The following are a few suggestions to help promote collaborations between school safety researchers and local decision-makers:
- School safety researchers can support boards of education and administrators by helping to create systems to collect, analyze, and interpret local data. School safety researchers who are affiliated with universities or government agencies have the resources, supports, and infrastructure to help local decision-makers collect and make sense of local data in terms of effective national trends and strategies. They also have programs that need to be implemented in a wide range of schools in order to evaluate and ensure effectiveness over time, which is how this collaborative work would be beneficial to both groups.
- School safety researchers should make their data and research-based programs and interventions accessible and relevant to local school districts, and/or school districts generally. It is critical that we open the possibility of increased information sharing between those who created and are experts on programming and those who make local policy and funding decisions for districts. The National School Boards Association (NSBA), as well as state-wide school boards associations, can help to support these collaborations. NSBA has established “the Center for Safe Schools,” an initiative “to support and ensure a safe and secure environment for students, staff and the community.”To see this link on the NSBA website is encouraging, and I see how this site could potentially house a wide range of evidence-supported school safety curricula or programs in a format that is relevant and accessible for school leaders to quickly review and assess. In addition, this space could provide a venue for safety researchers and local decision-makers to connect and share information.
- As an educational researcher, I attend annual research conferences which have few administrators, teachers, or BOE members in attendance. When I was a BOE member, I attended annual professional development and school board conferences that rarely involved school safety researchers with expertise in evidence-based programs. Can strategies and incentives be developed to encourage local decision-makers and researchers to attend conferences or summits that would allow for information and resources to be shared? At a minimum, lowering the cost for non-members to be part of these different professional organizations and conferences would allow more information sharing between researchers and decision-makers. In addition, universities and school safety researchers could work with local and state-level boards of education to provide more opportunities for training and professional development that comes directly from safety researchers in the field.
Researchers know that effective school safety programs should be districtwide and include training and education for all stakeholders, including, students, teachers, staff, and families. As the policy and budgetary stewards of the district, it is critical that BOE members examine the evidence of effectiveness for any school safety program and avoid investing in multiple, expensive, unrelated school safety efforts that do not take a whole school/district approach. In these challenging budgetary times, we need data-driven districtwide school safety programs and policies that show effectiveness over time. The basis for these decisions should be national-level research outcomes coupled with local district stakeholder feedback/data collection. More structured collaborations between experts and local decision-makers could result in a wider consideration of evidence-based school safety programs or policies at the board table.
My three years as a BOE member taught me that local data-driven decision-making (in collaboration with experts) is critical in a politically charged climate. Despite the acrimony and divisiveness in many communities, I believe that the vast majority of BOE members across the U.S. put great effort into supporting policies and initiatives that they think are in the best interests of the schools they represent. Beliefs about what makes students feel safe vary greatly, which is my motivation for writing this article about the importance of local data driving safety-related decisions. If we don’t use data from all school stakeholders to choose the appropriate school safety programs and evaluate the effectiveness of these programs or policies once implemented, we are wasting time and money, and potentially neglecting the most pressing safety concerns of members of our school community.
What follows is a selection of links to safety-related research-based sources, data, and programs that may help to inform local decision-making. In addition, support and guidance from researchers is critical for local decision-makers to collect valid data from school stakeholders and ensure that all district voices, not just a few loud constituents who show up for public comment at board meetings, inform decisions on school safety. School safety is incredibly complex, and attention needs to be paid to what our schools need to increase feelings of safety because the decisions we make today can have long-term positive and/or negative influences on the students we were elected to serve.
The Center for Safe Schools (NSBA)