Do Current Security Measures Prevent School Shootings?
Research questions the effectiveness of the commonly used security procedures.
Posted May 20, 2018
School districts...are urgently chasing answers, with an increasing number staking their hopes on high-tech security systems originally developed for the military, police and private industry. These modern tools range from instant background checks for visitors and social-media monitoring software to gunshot-detection sensors and ID cards equipped with panic buttons. They’re driving a rapidly growing school security market, which has ballooned to a multibillion-dollar industry—despite little proof that the new methods prevent violence.
NBC News, May 20, 2018
The current tragedy
On May 18, 2018, a shooting took place at Santa Fe High School, in Texas, resulting in the death of eight students and two teachers.
So far in 2018, on average one school shooting has occurred each week.
Though I am familiar with various forms of trauma, and with resilience after trauma, I had not heard of school shootings till I migrated to North America. I know of no other country around the world where school shootings occur as often as they do (and are as deadly as the ones) in the U.S.
Although I have now become used to hearing about shootings, emotionally I still find them shocking. Deeply so.
I can not imagine how painful it must be for the parents whose children have been killed or injured in such shootings, to go on living. It must feel like life will never be the same.
Each time a shooting takes place in some school, many students around the country fear that a similar one might occur in their school; that some angry or unhappy classmate might one day enter the school fully armed....
Similarly, many parents fear that their very own child might be the victim of a similarly horrendous incident next week, month, or year. That is truly unthinkable.
Indeed, parental fears can remain elevated for more than a year after school shootings, though overall it appears that parents are becoming more used to coping with such incidents.1
Students and their parents would worry less if they could believe that the security procedures adopted by schools are actually effective. So let us discuss these procedures.
The security measures implemented in schools are often based on a perspective called situational crime prevention. This approach is less focused on the individual committing a crime and more on making changes needed to reduce the opportunities to commit the crime―by increasing the effort and risk and reducing the reward associated with committing an offense.2
Does this approach work? Some research suggests that it does. To illustrate, consider suicide by domestic gas, which was once quite common. So what changed? The poisonous content of the gas supplied to homes was reduced, and this change appears to be responsible for a reduction in suicide by domestic gas.3
Applied to school shootings, the situational crime prevention approach has included measures like monitoring and surveillance, metal detectors, the presence of police or other armed officers, etc.
How effective are these measures? Surprisingly, they appear to have “little to no effect” and can at times even “increase fear and anxiety within the school setting.”4
For example, a 2013 study, employing a nationally representative sample, found “no evidence suggesting that...[school resource officers] or other sworn law-enforcement officers contribute to school safety. That is, for no crime type was an increase in the presence of police significantly related to decreased crime rates.”5
And looking back, university police and school resource officers did not appear to deter the rampage shootings at Virginia Tech, Columbine, and numerous other places.6
And a 2011 study concluded that the “presence of guards and metal detectors both significantly increased overall perceptions of fear, even after controlling for other important variables such as previous victimizations.”7
So given that the use of armed officers, metal detectors, and other hard security measures can (and have) failed in the past, what can be done? One aspect of reducing opportunities for a crime involves what students and staff can do when they find themselves in an active shooter situation.
Traditional lockdown approaches include locking the doors, turning off the lights, staying close to the ground, moving away from windows and doors…waiting for the arrival of police.
But sometimes shootings occur at times or in places (like the cafeteria, as occurred in Columbine) that make such lockdown approaches less effective.4
Therefore, approaches that provide additional response options, and train the students and staff how to actively resist a shooter, might be more useful in such situations.
There is a lack of research on the effectiveness of these multi-option strategies, but for illustration purposes, let us examine and compare student responses in previous shootings:
At Sandy Hook and Columbine, Jonson notes, the “majority of fatalities occurred with students taking a passive response either by being huddled in corners or by hiding under tables when the shooter entered the room.”
In the Virginia Tech shooting, Jonson notes, students in different classrooms reacted differently to the shooter:
In the “two classrooms that took a more passive approach—not utilizing barricade, evacuation, or active resistance measures—the number of lives lost and injured was tragically high (36 individuals present with 22 killed and eight injured),” while in the “three rooms at Virginia Tech in which the various options advocated in multi-option response programs were enacted experienced fewer fatalities and injuries (44 present with seven killed and nine wounded).”4
Obviously, previous shootings are not research studies, and thus while it is useful to examine them carefully, they can not serve as evidence that a particular approach works and another does not.
The real problem is that research is lacking in many areas about school safety, and yet it is also understandable that public wants something done as soon as possible.
The elected politicians might approve of questionable policies and only to allay people’s fears temporarily, but we must remember that the appearance of security does not translate to actual safety and security, and that some measures might not prevent some tragedies and instead only increase students’ fears.
And let us not forget that schools and districts, in order to afford various security measures, might be forced to make cuts in important areas (e.g, hiring of teachers or improving various school programs).4
I believe that good solutions to the problem of school shootings exist. I also believe that it is fine if fear or anger motivate us to push for action and change. But at the end of the day, let us be patient when we look at the available options, and let us think carefully before we decide on the path forward. The lives of children depend on it.
2. Clarke, R. V. (1980). Situational crime prevention: Theory and practice. British Journal of Criminology, 20, 136-147.
3. Hassall, C., & Trethowan, W. H. (1972). Suicide in Birmingham. British Medical Journal, 1, 717–718.
4. Jonson, C. L. (2017). Preventing school shootings: The effectiveness of safety measures. Victims & Offenders, 12, 956-973.
5. Chongmin, N., & Gottfredson, D. C. (2013) Police officers in schools: Effects on school crime and the processing of offending behaviors. Justice Quarterly, 30, 619-650.
6. Madfis, E. (2016). “It’s better to overreact”: School officials’ fear and perceived risk of rampage attacks and the criminalization of American public schools. Critical Criminology, 24, 39–55.
7. Bachman, R., Randolph, A., & Brown, B. L. (2011). Predicting perceptions of fear at school and going to and from school for African American and white students: The effects of school security measures. Youth & Society, 43, 705–726.