Public Safety & Homeland Security

There Is No Perfect Solution to Preventing School Violence

In the wake of last week's mass stabbings at a Pennsylvania high school, there have been questions about how school violence continues in spite of security measures and training undertaken by districts.

by Mary Niederberger, McClatchy News / April 15, 2014
The memorial in Littleton, Colo., to honor and remember the victims of the shooting at Columbine High School in April 1999. Flickr/David Keyzer

If there's one thing school safety experts agree on, it's this: There is no perfect solution to preventing school violence.

"The good news is that schools are actually getting much better at preventing violence, but the bad news is we will always have incidents that slip through the cracks because you are dealing with human behavior," said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.

In the wake of last week's mass stabbings at Franklin Regional High School, there have been calls for metal detectors and increased physical security in schools and questions about how school violence continues in spite of security measures and training undertaken by districts.

While metal detectors can be part of a school's overall security plan, the majority of schools across the nation do not have them, and safety experts and school officials say metal detectors represent a simplistic fix that do not address a complex problem.

"More than metal detectors, you need mental detectors," Mr. Trump said.

He was making reference to the fact that increased physical security measures can only go so far if mental health supports are not in place in schools to help students and teachers deal with the problems that are brought into the schools.

"We are seeing a lot more kids in crisis and families with problems in the schools," Bethel Park school police Officer James Modrak said. "There are a lot more issues at home. More single-parent households. There's a lot of changes in morality and how we approach things."

To address the issue in Bethel Park, the district has increased the availability of social workers at its schools, Mr. Modrak said.

Likewise in West Mifflin, Superintendent Dan Castagna said his district has made the emotional and psychological health of students a focus of extensive training in recent years.

But he said more money should be allocated from the state for mental health services and intervention in the school and community.

"Children are facing emotional and psychological issues that I don't feel we truly understand," Mr. Castagna said.

In addition to increasing mental health supports, experts say placing more school resources officers in buildings would likely help prevent future violence because they can build relationships and confidences with the students.

Those relationships help the officer keep abreast of issues percolating among students and provide students a responsible adult with whom they can share information.

"One of the answers to preventing school violence lies in personal communication with school staff," said Bill Bond, a school safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, who was the principal of Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., in December 1997, when a 14-year-old boy shot and killed three students and injured five others.

"In almost every case, other kids knew something about it prior to happening, and having someone they can trust with that information is much more important than having someone stand behind a metal detector," Mr. Bond said.

The incident prompted Mr. Bond to start work as a school safety professional to help other schools learn from his experience.

He said the motives for school attacks are often never determined and the mystery makes prevention difficult.

"I'll be surprised if you ever really find out why this one [at Franklin Regional] started. I'm looking back 15 years with a suspect that's still alive and we still don't have that answer about what started that," Mr. Bond said.

Heath High School did not have a metal detector at the time of the 1997 shooting and still doesn't, Mr. Bond said.

He said the logic of a metal detector is that it will stop someone who is afraid of getting caught. But, he said, individuals planning mass attacks expect to get caught.

"They have no escape plans. They never even attempt to leave, but to do as much damage as possible. Then they either commit suicide or they surrender." Mr. Bond said.

Experts suggest that schools also need to practice lock-down drills — in which students are locked into classrooms — during the vulnerable times of day when crowds are arriving or departing, eating lunch or changing classes.

Most schools practice lock-down drills when students are in class, with teachers securing the doors and students hiding in corners or under desks. But few schools have plans for how to lock down during the periods of time when large numbers of students are walking freely through the classrooms as was the case at Franklin Regional when the assaults took place.

"In these situations that are going to be chaotic, you need to run to the nearest safe place that you can get to," Mr. Trump said.

Some experts also suggest that students be trained to be "initial responders" in the same way teachers have been trained to react to intruders. The training should start with how to safely get away from the situation, but if not, how to respond in ways that will increase survivability.

Mr. Modrak said Bethel Park is planning training sessions for its students.

"They will be taught if you can get out, get out. If you have to secure yourself in a room, secure yourself. ... Teaching them self-initiation actions is the key," Mr. Modrak said. "You have to give the students and staff the best survivability chance you can."

Mr. Trump agrees with training students.

"The whole thing with school safety is that it begins and ends with people. The first and best line of defense is always a well-trained, highly alert staff and student body."

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