The Politics of School Safety & Security

Sir Earnest Benn, political publisher and British baronet (1875-1954) once said that, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.” For school safety and security, the stakes of getting it wrong are too high to simply let the normal political process play out. 

“There’s always been a context of politics around this topic. The parents don’t know what they don’t know, and no one is rushing to tell them,” said Kenneth Trump, a prominent expert on school safety from his interview in October 2013 with NBC news. Clearly, when it comes to school safety and security, it is hard to find anyone who does not agree that it is an important topic, and a desirable goal is to seek improvement. However, much of the agreement ends there and, as Trump further pointed out, “There’s been a history of downplay, deny, deflect, and defend . . . to protect the image of the schools.” Although no one is in favor of unsafe or dangerous schools, every improvement to school safety and security comes at a cost and, in many cases, these costs are in competition for money and resources across the spectrum of public services.

One of the key problems in framing the conversation around this issue is that, in many cases, the biggest challenge is in actually defining what “right looks like” when it comes to school safety and security. As discussed in a previous DomPrep Journal article on this topic in 2014, without a universally accepted set of school safety and security standards at the national level and without state-level standards in many states, school officials may have difficulty justifying school safety and security improvement costs (for systems and facilities) to the political agencies that ultimately provide the funding.

Shining a Harsh Light

Of course, one of the interesting paradoxes in this area is that every time there is a school shooting or other violent incident that occurs – there is an immediate rush to judgment by the media, politicians, and even the general public as to why the situation was not prevented. Although focusing on a hot topic can be useful in creating awareness, in many cases, it leads to policies and procedures that are not always well thought out or based on solid research and best practices. For instance, in many schools and systems a draconian zero-tolerance policy has been adopted in the wake of perceived problems with crime, drugs, and violence within schools rather than a more measured and scientifically researched system such as the State of Virginia’s Response to Intervention (RTI) framework.

Although well meaning in most cases and politically popular, such “Zero-tolerance” policies tend to deal solely with the symptoms of the problem instead of addressing the underlying causes. Zero-tolerance policies tend to focus exclusively on behavior. However, according to education expert Alfie Kohn (2004), “When we’re preoccupied with behaviors, we’re less likely to dig deep in order to understand the reasons, values, and motives that give rise to those behaviors.” Zero tolerance is a popular political position and would make sense if crime and violence in schools were increasing, but the number of such incidents has actually been decreasing over time and not likely as a result of zero tolerance.

In fact, in New York City, the schools that have strict zero-tolerance policies and aggressive security procedures, such as metal detectors and surveillance cameras, actually have more problems and issue 48 percent more suspensions than schools that have a lesser profile and more tolerant policies. The media, in many cases while covering sensational events, certainly increases awareness of the issue, but rarely spends more than a few news cycles focusing on the topic in any depth – frequently offering only superficial coverage and failing to delve into any real underlying issues.

Just Do Something – The Knee-Jerk Syndrome

Similar issues are found when it comes to equipment and technology. In the wake of school shootings, many political leaders and school district officials are under extreme pressure to “just do something.” For instance, in Ohio, there recently has been a highly emotional controversy spreading through the state over room door barricades. On the face of it, these devices (of various designs) allow room occupants to mechanically block the door in addition to normal locking mechanisms and would seem to be an excellent choice to help prevent the entry of an active shooter and protect students and faculty. From a political standpoint, they show concern and action on the part of officials. “Let’s put one in every room,” would likely be a great political quotation.

However, the possible second- and third-order effects of these devices raise concern about what would happen should a device fall into the wrong hands. As Trump (2015) pointed out, there are potentially “very real dangers created if these barricades are used improperly,” for example:

  • Someone using the barricade to prevent the escape of a sexual assault victim from an empty and darkened room;

  • A mentally disturbed student barricading an area in conjunction with a weapon to hold a full of students hostage and to keep law enforcement out; or

  • A disgruntled employee or student trapping occupants inside an area during a fire or arson event.

In addition to the political ramifications of these potential scenarios should barricades be placed in every room, the use of the devices may actually violate fire and building codes, as would chaining and locking doors.

A Measured Approach

In the end, when it comes to the political considerations of school safety and security policies and practices, officials and administrators would be wise to adopt a reasonable and measured approach that considers all hazards and all threats within the context that they are likely to occur. Having a comprehensive threat assessment is a necessary first step that should drive policy decisions up front. Additionally, having a validated and research-based set of guidelines and standards for school safety and security that drives procedures and practices can go a long way toward ensuring comprehensive school safety and security and even providing political cover as well.

Wayne Bergeron
Dr. Wayne P. Bergeron, lieutenant colonel (retired), served in the United States Army for 23 years within the Military Police Corps and Special Operations Forces. He currently serves as an associate professor teaching criminal justice and security as well as emergency management. He is the founding director of the North Alabama Public Service Training Center at the University of North Alabama in Florence, Alabama, providing continuing education and training to the region’s law enforcement, fire/rescue, emergency medical services, and emergency management communities. His education includes undergraduate degrees in criminal justice and political science, a master’s degree in international relations, and a doctorate in emergency management.



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