PHOTO COURTESY OF MAX SCHACHTER
In September, school safety activist Max Schachter attended the White House launch of the first-ever federal office of gun violence prevention. In October, he accompanied school leaders from across the country through the bullet-ridden crime scene of the 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Building 1200 on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School campus is where Schachter’s 14-year-old son Alex and 16 others were killed by a teenage gunman. Seventeen others were injured that Valentine’s Day.
Participating in those very different events this fall were part of the same mission for Schachter—to raise awareness about making schools safer from gun violence. “Safety has to come before education because you can’t teach dead kids,” he says.
Spurred by the safety failures highlighted by the Parkland massacre, Schachter founded Safe Schools for Alex (https://www.safeschoolsforalex.org), a nonprofit providing school safety best practices and resources to students, parents, school districts, law enforcement, and others.
Appointed to the 2018 Florida commission that investigated the Parkland shooting and developed safety recommendations, he has testified as a subject matter expert before the U.S. Congress and various state legislatures and advised federal agencies on school gun violence protection. Schachter spoke with ASBJ Associate Editor Michelle Healy about creating safer schools.
The school building that was the site of the Parkland shooting is scheduled to be demolished in the summer of 2024, after having been preserved as evidence in two court cases. You previously accompanied Congressional members on a tour of the crime scene. More recently, school leaders. Why?
I can talk about what happened there, but having somebody walk through that building and have that visceral experience is different. It affects people in a way that no words ever could. The building has not been cleaned; nothing has been removed. There’s blood everywhere. It’s a war zone. It’s important for leaders to come through the building to understand what happened, the failures, and the lessons learned so that they can go back to their communities to make them safer.
The addition of a federal office focused on gun violence prevention is overdue?
I’ve long felt that there should have been a federal Office of School Safety, kind of like a school safety czar. I’m hoping, and I believe, that this new office will fill that role. It’s a big first step. Having in the White House an individual whose purpose is reducing the gun violence epidemic and saving lives is huge. It shows a commitment to and a focus on the severity of this issue and how gun violence is just ripping families apart and devastating communities.
You advocated for creating the Federal School Safety Clearinghouse (https://www.schoolsafety.gov), launched in 2020. What should school board members know about this resource?
Its role is to reduce duplication and increase cooperation amongst all the federal agencies that focus on this issue. There are two features on the site that I hope school board members pay close attention to. One is the school readiness tool: After answering 10 questions that are the foundational elements of school safety, the website produces a PDF tailored to your answers that gauges readiness in regard to school safety. It tells you where your gaps are, what you need to do first, second, and so on to fill those gaps, and directs you to grants to fill those gaps. The other important feature is the robust grant finder tool. There are billions of dollars available from the federal government to help school districts increase school safety preparedness. This grant finder tool aggregates grants from the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Education, and Department of Justice.
Safe Schools for Alex has created a school safety dashboard that's been adapted for several states. How does it help?
After the Parkland shooting, I found out that Florida required every school to report incidents of violence, drug use, and suspensions to the state Department of Education. When I went to look at the data, it was housed in a massive spreadsheet. We took that publicly available data and imported it into our dashboard. Every school may have its own information, but how does one school know if their numbers are good or bad, high, or low? The goal is to use data to make schools safer, reduce violence, reduce exclusionary discipline, make the culture and climate on your campus more positive. We’ve launched dashboards for Florida and four other states. Our goal is to do this for every state.
Having armed and trained school safety officers on campus tops the list of your safety recommendations. Why is that so important?
We know from studying these terrible tragedies that this is the number one way to save lives. Is it going to eliminate the risk of a school shooting? Of course not. But it is part of the process of violence mitigation and saving lives. By law in Florida, all of our 4,000 schools are now required to have at least one armed school security officer. We also have threat assessment teams in every school, threat assessment teams in every district, districtwide coordinators, and a state coordinator. And we have a very robust Office of School Safety and auditors who go out and make sure that districts are doing what they should be doing. We also know the importance of having a robust “see something, say something” app or program in place. Kids know who’s thinking about hurting themselves or others. Giving kids a method to communicate that information is important.
Isn’t there resistance to recommendations for armed security in schools?
I think we’ve seen a shift in mindset recently. I think that school districts realize that this is, unfortunately, a necessary component that we need to have on our campuses. There’s no one panacea to school safety. Armed officers on campus, who should be carefully selected and carefully trained, should not be responsible for student discipline. They’re there to respond to an emergency if one happens. Unfortunately, this is necessary in the world that we live in.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)