In many ways, school boards embody the purest form of democracy. In any given community, you might find nine elected representatives sitting around a table in a public meeting debating whether it is most effective to fund a school resource officer, make security-related changes to school buildings, or devote funding to school-based mental health services. Board members are elected by their local communities to oversee their district, promote student achievement, and make policy-related decisions. Back when school boards were widely established in the 1800s, it must have been hard to imagine that these groups would one day be debating life and death issues. We know that homicides in schools are extremely rare and chaotic events, which makes school board decisions related to prevention incredibly complex and difficult. So what can the over 90,000 school board members in the U.S., who provide oversight to nearly 14,000 districts with limited budgets and competing priorities, do when making choices about the complex issues surrounding school safety and security?
In the national dialogue about school safety, there is only a peripheral understanding that these serious and significant policy decisions are, to a large degree, made by local districts and board members. Overall, there isnt a national effort to better inform board members about school safety research and data-based best practices through professional development. Few partnerships exist between school boards and university researchers to help inform these critical choices. Board members make decisions in a variety of ways, such as relying on their own experience, gathering community and stakeholder feedback, accepting a superintendents recommendation, or listening to vocal and well-organized parent or community groups. Unfortunately, decisions are often made in the absence of local, empirical data and trusted national and international research. In this period of political divisiveness and conflicting or misleading information, it is incredibly important that local district policymakers be up to date on current and promising school safety research.
There are 55 million students enrolled in U.S. K12 schools. According to the most recent statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, there have been an average of 23 homicides annually involving K12 students at or on the way to and from school over the past two decades. During that same time period, there were an average of 1,648 homicides involving K12 students outside of school in the U.S. Looking at this data, schools would appear to be a very safe context for children. But how can we balance this knowledge at the local level with the horrifying images of mass carnage at school and the fear that this will happen in our district? How can these statistics, and the individuals entrusted with safety-related decisions, reassure parents that that their child wont be killed by a fellow student with an automatic weapon while hiding under their desk in History class? One in a million means nothing if it happens in your school, or to your child. How can school boards provide a rational, data-driven response to such an emotional issue?
Districts in several states are currently deciding whether to allow teachers who have firearms training to carry concealed weapons in school, whether to hire more armed security officers, and whether to increase a police presence in schools. But what does science say about the best ways to prevent horrific events like shootings in school? Education researchers, many of whom spend decades developing and evaluating school safety programs and policies, can be a valuable asset to local school boards. Some district leaders make great efforts to consult with researchers on school safety, but, generally, researchers who have a wealth of information based on evidence are absent from these district-level conversations. These decisions can be influenced by state and local law enforcement, which tends to focus on the need to harden schools, when decades of empirical research show the effectiveness of focusing on student mental health, connectedness, teacher relationships, and trust. Board members need to be aware of the potential negative outcomes of hardening schools, and the need for sensible, local school safety and threat assessment programs that allow for a discussion of current strengths and weaknesses. This research and these recommended practicesvalidated by educational researchersneed to be available and accessible to board members across the country as they debate these difficult and complex issues.
We know that each school, each district, and each community is unique. Even in the same communities, conditions change over time. We ask educational researchers and school board members to use current local data to target appropriate interventions that keep students safe in school. We can continue to harden schools by arming more school personnel, or we can look at evidence about what prevents students from killing others and themselves. School boards have a lot to wrestle with, and educational researchers need to work collaboratively to promote these local partnerships so that consistent, data-driven decision-making surrounding school safety happens at the board table.