Heightened Security Doesn’t Increase Students’ Feelings of Safety, PSJ Survey Finds

Aug. 19, 2022

Sandy Hook. Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Umpqua. Marysville. Red Lake. Northern Illinois. Oikos. Santa Monica. Santa Fe. West Nickel. Columbine. Over the past two decades, school shootings have become an all-too-common tragedy. In 2022, such shootings have happened at a rate of nearly one per week, leaving 83 people killed or
wounded as a result. In May, a mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas raised questions yet again about what school districts and lawmakers
should do in response.

This summer, the Princeton Summer Journal sent detailed questions to thirty-two school districts seeking to understand what changes these districts have in place to prevent school shootings and protect students’ physical and mental well-being. The survey used by PSJ also asked district administrators to share what new procedures or policies they were considering, specifically in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting that left 19 fourth graders and two teachers dead.

PSJ reporters surveyed the principals of individual schools, school-security directors, and superintendents of entire school districts. These institutions spanned the country, from major cities including Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York, to rural Oregon, the central valley of California, and across the Southwest and South regions. Officials from 17 schools or districts responded to some or all of PSJ’s questions. Nearly every institution contacted by PSJ mentioned using enhanced security measures, including hiring more security officers, using metal detectors and cameras, and more training for students and teachers to identify potential shooters or respond to active threats. Only
a handful of institutions mentioned mental-health programs to respond to the school shooting crisis.

PSJ also surveyed twenty-eight students about their views on school safety and violence prevention. Most of the students said they felt safe in their schools. More than half of them voiced that their school and district had not clearly explained what to do in case of an active shooter on school grounds. Mostly, though, the students interviewed by PSJ said they recognized the larger issue of school shootings and lived with a fear that their school could be the site of a tragedy, the next Uvalde, Sandy Hook, or Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“At some point in my life, I used to consider school my safe space that protects me from all the dangers in the world,” said Maria Cuevas, 18, a high school student in New York City. “However, due to recent events in the world, as much as I would love to say that I do feel safe at school, I would be lying to myself.” If there was an overarching theme in the responses from school leaders and administrators about steps taken to prevent
future shootings, it was an emphasis on security measures such as security cameras, metal detectors, staffed entry and exit locations, and heightened screening of visitors. In most districts, these measures included hiring school-security officers; in a few cases, school officials said they had partnerships with local law enforcement agencies.

Dr. Randy Shearouse, superintendent of the Limestone County School District in Athens, Alabama, said his district “partners” with the county sheriff’s department to “provide resource officers at each of our schools.” Dr. Tyrone Weeks, superintendent of
Dearborn Heights Public Schools in southeast Michigan, said his district “has a contractual partnership with the Dearborn Heights Police Department in which a police liaison officer is assigned to support the district’s six schools, Board of Education Office, and support staff buildings.” Peter Varela, principal of South Brunswick High School in central New Jersey, said his school has “security and police present at SBHS every day” who are “retired law enforcement officers.”

Bernard Watson, director of community relations for the school system in Gwinnett County, a suburb of Atlanta, said the county’s schools have their own police force, employing ninety-eight officers with plans to hire more. “Our officers’ mission isn’t just
to protect students and staff,” Watson said. “They are dedicated to developing real relationships with students, creating an environment of mutual trust which helps prevent problems before they happen.” School officials and administrators also said they had sought out local and national law enforcement agencies as they updated their safety policies.

Most institutions surveyed by PSJ declined to share their active-shooter protocols for security reasons. When asked how often they reviewed and updated their school-safety policies, many respondents said they did so every year, as required by law in certain states. Scott Walsh, principal of Multicultural High School in Philadelphia, said Pennsylvania law requires school systems to submit new safety plans to the state every year by July 1. PSJ specifically asked school leaders and administrators to explain what changes they were considering or had already made since the Uvalde mass shooting in late May. According to law enforcement, the alleged shooter in Uvalde gained access to Robb Elementary through several faulty or insecure doors at the school. Not surprisingly, several institutions said their newest safety policies focused on securing the entrances and exits at their schools. Scott Walsh, the Philadelphia principal, said his high school had “replaced all classroom doors this summer and ensured that every door can lock from the inside.” He added that each room in the school had the room number posted inside and outside if a staff member needed to call 911 and alert emergency responders to their exact location.

Just four of the institutions that completed PSJ’s survey listed mental-health support services or interventions as part of their school safety plans. Weeks, head of Dearborn Heights Public Schools, said his district has partnerships with a nearby hospital system to “provide additional mental health professionals to our schools to serve as yet another layer of prevention.” Weeks added that Dearborn was developing a new “threat assessment protocol” to train school employees “to identify potential behaviors of concern to ensure that potential concerning behaviors are addressed and curtailed before they can be actualized on school grounds.”

The students interviewed by PSJ expressed a diverse set of views about the efficacy of their school’s safety policies, how safe they feel in school, and what it feels like to be a student in a time when shootings on school campuses occur with such frequency. Most students said they were familiar with their school’s active-shooter protocol and had gone through rapid-response drills on school grounds. Multiple students pointed to increased security measures as a reason they felt safer in their school. “I guess [I feel safe at school] because of the metal detectors, but if we didn’t have them, the adults in our school would not do well protecting us,” said Samarah, 16, a student in New York City.

A small percentage of students who answered the survey expressed concerns about their own safety and their school’s apparent lack of planning for a possible shooting. Olivia, a 17-year-old student in Brooklyn, said she felt her school made it too easy for strangers to enter the building and that the school’s active-shooter protocol was woefully insufficient. “My school’s soft and hard lockdown protocol is based on hiding and hoping that we won’t be found,” she said. “I believe that we need to change these protocols for present-day situations.”
Even if they didn’t feel unsafe in their own schools, many students said they supported new laws or restrictions on gun ownership to prevent future shootings. Several students, for instance, called for raising
the legal age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 in all states, or restricting the number of weapons an individual can purchase in a specific period of time.

Yet no matter how many metal detectors or security officers their school had, no matter how many active-shooter drills they had experienced, some students said they could not escape the sense that their school could still be targeted and that going to school each day came with a degree of risk. “I don’t think I’ll feel safe,” said Bang, 17, a student in Pennsauken, New Jersey, “no matter how much protocol the school has prepared, when I’m aware of the lack of gun control and the many past shootings that have happened.