Safety policies designed to protect schools from mass shootings have done little to deter them and may even be harmful to students, research shows, despite a renewed push for such measures in the wake of Tuesday’s shooting in Texas.
The 18-year-old gunman who killed at least 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde elementary school was able to evade security protocols already in place. Yet some U.S. lawmakers are arguing those policies are needed, and should be reinforced, instead of pursuing meaningful gun control.
“We have years of data suggesting that these measures, while they have been impacting school outcomes, they haven’t been necessarily changing the trajectories or the trends in actual injury and deaths,” said Odis Johnson, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools in Washington, D.C.
Johnson and other researchers have found evidence that school safety policies — including on-campus police officers, metal detectors, and increased surveillance systems like security cameras — have a negative impact on education itself.
Students at schools that rely on such policies for safety often achieve lower test scores and rates of college admission compared to other schools, the research suggests.
One representative study released last year, which was co-authored by Johnson, found students at “high-surveillance” schools were more likely to face in-school suspension, achieved lower math scores and were less likely to attend college than students at “low-surveillance” schools.
The study also found such safety protocols predominantly impacted racialized students, with Black students four times as likely to attend schools considered “high-surveillance.”
Meanwhile, gun violence at schools is on the rise in the U.S. The National Center for Education Statistics has found the number of school shootings resulting in injuries or death has increased steadily over the last seven years.
There have been 137 shooting incidents at schools so far this year — almost one a day — and there were 249 last year, according to David Riedman, lead researcher at the K-12 School Shooting Database at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security. It tracks every incident in which a gun is brandished or fired or a bullet hits school property.
“What is becoming more prevalent is systematic gun violence at schools is dramatically increasing, especially at high schools. This is due to students carrying weapons and conflicts escalating to the point of gun violence,” Riedman told Reuters.
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Johnson says school safety measures do not address the prevalence of guns in the country and the ease with which people can access them, including the Uvalde shooter, who purchased the weapons used in the massacre shortly after his 18th birthday.
They also don’t necessarily stop people outside a school from entering and opening fire.
“What is needed is an understanding that schools are embedded within communities and cities that have a problem with gun control,” he said.
In the wake of the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School that killed 10 people and wounded 13 others, Texas lawmakers focused instead on improving school safety, including mandatory emergency training for all school employees and improved mental health care for students.
A new state law, which passed in 2019, required school districts to create “threat assessment teams” for every campus as well as “bleeding control stations,” which are essentially battlefield tourniquet kits in schools.
On Tuesday, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick continued to insist that schools need to be further secured, telling Fox News that officials must “harden these targets so nobody can get in.”
Other Republican lawmakers in Texas and elsewhere used similar language while speaking to conservative media on Tuesday and Wednesday. Attorney General Ken Paxton called for arming teachers, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said more armed police officers are needed on campuses.
Cruz also suggested on Wednesday that schools should only “have one door into and out of the school” that is protected by armed officers, doing away with other entry points. He also mentioned bulletproof windows and doors were needed.
Robb Elementary — the small elementary school in Uvalde, a heavily Latino community, where Tuesday’s shooting took place — has four armed police officers stationed on campus as part of its two-page list of preventative safety measures. Other measures include a threat assessment team, security cameras and metal detectors.
Despite earlier reports that one of those officers exchanged gunfire with the shooter before the gunman entered the school, police said Thursday that the suspect was unimpeded, and no armed guards were inside the school when he arrived.
Regardless of the sequence of events on Tuesday, Johnson says a focus on gun control would also help police officers and anyone else tasked with preserving safety at schools.
“I don’t know of a police officer out there who believes that their job is easier with more guns on the street, and easier access to those guns, and less responsibility in making sure they’re secured from young people,” he said.
Securing schools has also proven to be a profitable industry, reaching $2.7 billion in revenue in 2017, according to market research firm Omdia. The firm predicted then that revenue would grow to $2.8 billion by 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to a drop in spending.
Yet in 2018, a Washington Post survey of schools that had experienced a shooting in the six years since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., found only one school that suggested such safety measures could have made a difference.
Johnson suggests lawmakers who are pushing school safety measures ahead of gun reform “haven’t caught up to these more recent trends” in his research and gun violence statistics, which has been available for years.
“I don’t know how long the lag has to be before lawmakers get the message that recent events suggest a change in approach is necessary,” he said.
— With files from Reuters