by A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP
On its surface, the job of those specializing safety & security should be a simple one; to keep bad things from happening by securing an environment from accidental and/or intentional incidents that may cause injury, loss or even death. However, when you add in the challenges of convenience, throughput, culture and compliance, the issue gets amazingly complicated. School security is, and continues to be, a layered subject centered on continuous philosophical debate, and as a result it has fallen victim to countless myths and misconceptions pertaining to its level of complexity, its potential solutions, and its overall purpose in keeping our students and staff members safe in our educational institutions.
Here are several of those myths, debunked.
Myth: “My school does not need added security; it’s safe”
In a perfect world, the need for school security (or building security of any kind) would not exist because it would not be needed. Sadly, that is not the case, and therefore it is almost impossible to justify the far-too-common “it won’t happen here” mentality. As we have seen in the last few years alone, these horrific incidents to not discriminate in terms of school size, location, or even grade level. Professional security protocols should be viewed as a regular, primary focal point in school district or collegiate infrastructure, ranging from regular threat assessments and building audits to allocations of funding that include up-to-date security maintenance. The issue boils down to the inevitable need for preemptive planning, and this pertains to schools of all types. A lack of change will only doom us into repeating a vicious cycle of tragedy.
Many education professionals and political talking heads often offer a false equivalent between the need to pay for books or teachers and the costs of creating & maintaining a safe environment. I argue that this point is false because every educational institution in America already has a facilities, health and safety budget as well as numerous state and federal laws (such as FERPA, IDEA and testing regulations) to comply with. If the issue of campus safety & security was approached in the same manner as other support services like compliance and facilities are; then education safety assessment, budgeting, planning and implementation would have become a more standardized fixture in America’s schools and colleges in the nineteen years since the Columbine High School tragedy.
Myth: “Increasing law enforcement and/or security in schools will basically turn them into prisons”
Even in the most “persistently dangerous” schools in America, a sociological concept called the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” has prevented school districts from deploying professional law enforcement and certified security resources on campus. This common, albeit careless, misconception in the school safety debate is that enhanced security turns schools into “prisons” because students will get “locked up” for “minor juvenile crimes”. Instead, the districts that subscribe to this belief often fail to take into account, in the example of violent bullies or gang activity in schools, the rights of the victims who are forced to attend classes amidst their attackers. As I have previously noted on numerous occasions, a safe school and a prison are far from synonymous; this is simply the product of a distracted and confused point of view. There have been several expert reports that have summed up the debunking of the argument that providing an effective safety and security in educational environments creates a “Pathway to Corrections”. Instead of resorting to the emotional default of looking at law enforcement or security in schools as being there to “lock up” students for their own good, we must shift our collective thinking to view a professional law enforcement or security presence as a preventative process — a shift towards more control and a mitigation of weaknesses that could quickly spell disaster for a school’s students and faculty.
Oh, and if you’re still concerned with students being subjected to the criminal justice system and a criminal record, keep in mind that it is law enforcement’s role to speak for victims and make environments safe by apprehending criminals. The job or restorative justice and rehabilitation does not get done by failing to address criminality in any environment, but in how the judiciary and correctional system provides pathways to stop minor criminals from graduating to major crimes. This is why every state in the union has expungement mechanisms for juvenile arrests & convictions so that those who get rehabilitated are able to go through life without a criminal record.
Myth: “School safety is a simple issue with simple answers”
While the school safety debate may appear simple in theory; schools are expected to be safe and secure, and the well-being of staff and students should be a “no-brainer” within the hierarchy of a school’s needs. However, by oversimplifying the issue and shifting our national focus to wedge issues as we’ve done for over two decades, we have continually fed the machine of violence rather than stopping it in its tracks, which is evident by the increased number of active shooter incidents in our schools in the last nine years. In not methodically engaging board certified security professionals to assess security & safety gaps, create plans, hiring staff and budgeting for capital improvements; we’re allowing these threats to our educational safe spaces to keep running rampant to allow a variety of misguided debates to create gridlock in any possible progress that can be made.
The solution lies in a much broader shift to heightened awareness, disciplined focus on proper statistics, and diminished folly in how we approach current educational safety measures. This diminished folly includes the simplistic view held by many of those attempting to do the right thing; but only focus on physical security walk-throughs or capital improvements (such as cameras and/or alarms) as a solution. A true Educational Safety assessment includes a deep dive into current policy, compliance mechanisms, reporting processes, staffing and interagency relationships. These tasks, in addition to assessing a campus’ physical security measures, come together in creating an environment that addresses insider threats as well as external ones; which helps make our educational institutions truly safer.