Introduction and summary
On April 20, 1999, the nation watched in horror as the news cycle flooded with images of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where two students killed 12 classmates and one teacher and wounded many others inside.1 The shooting at Columbine High School marked a turning point for the American public school system. This mass school shooting was the deadliest act of school violence at the time, and it made Americans feel less confident in the security of school buildings, which were once considered safe places for students to learn and grow. State and federal governments immediately responded to the Columbine shooting by investing in visible security measures such as school resource officers (SROs), metal detectors, and surveillance equipment.
In the aftermath of more recent school shootings, governments at the state and federal levels have allocated significant new resources to keep students safe and avert future tragedies. Too often, however, these important resources are used to implement more stringent security measures in schools, including hiring SROs, installing security devices such as metal detectors, and even arming teachers with guns.2 Although this focus on physical—and visible—safety measures is understandable in the wake of a tragedy, it results in the adoption of approaches to school violence that have not been proven to advance school safety. Moreover, there is some evidence that safety measures such as SROs and metal detectors create a less welcoming environment for students, particularly students of color.3 It is therefore important to invest in proven, evidence-based solutions that go beyond providing visual representations of safety to create a genuinely safer school environment. Such approaches include violence prevention programs, teacher trainings, and peer mediation interventions.
This report mentions Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School because these were the locations of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history and prompted an immediate response from lawmakers nationwide. However, many of the policies enacted in the wake of incidents like these have the unintended impact of making many students, particularly students of color, feel much less safe in their schools. These students are often left out of conversations around interventions to school violence and school shootings, yet those same interventions make their education environments less safe. For this reason, this report addresses why the call to harden schools places these students further at risk.
Furthermore, a single-minded focus on hardening schools funnels critical resources into the pockets of private companies that are prepared to profit from tragedy. Although these companies’ products may seem to make students safer, there is inconclusive evidence as to whether they achieve this goal. It would be more productive in the long term for the federal government, states, and school districts to invest in creating a positive, safe, and supportive school climate.
This report considers the United States’ history of school violence and the subsequent investments in stringent security measures to date. It presents evidence as to why this response largely fails to increase school safety. It also examines the corresponding growth in the school security industry, which does not provide evidence-based solutions. Finally, the report offers policy recommendations that encourage investment in strategies to improve school climate and keep students, teachers, and schools safe.
History of policy responses to the most catastrophic U.S. public school shootings
One year after the shooting at Columbine High School, former President Bill Clinton pledged an additional $60 million to enable U.S. public K-12 schools to hire 452 officers under the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in Schools a program he implemented in 1999.4 According to a survey by USA Today, in that same year, more than 70 percent of surveyed parents said that their public K-12 school had taken steps to prevent school violence.5 In a Pew Research Center study released on the one-year anniversary of the Columbine tragedy, 37 percent of parents indicated that their child’s school updated its security.6
In 2003, more than $350 million in funding was made available for public K-12 schools to purchase security technology through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after schools were identified as potential sites for terrorist attacks.7 Through DHS’ Public Safety and Community Policing Grants, schools could hire high school police officers and purchase security equipment.8 And not only schools received generous support. By 2004, the DOJ had awarded $747.5 million to school resource officer programs and an additional $13 million in grants to assist law enforcement with providing school security products such as metal detectors.9
Another senseless tragedy occurred on December 14, 2012, when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 26 children and educators.10 Soon after, the Connecticut Legislature passed new safety laws that appropriated $42 million for security grants to Connecticut schools.11 A year later, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $1.3 million to the Newtown Public School District to assist with recovery efforts.12 The state of Connecticut also provided a $50 million grant to rebuild the elementary school, and the construction was completed in 2016.13
The pattern repeated this year. On February 14, 2018, a former student killed 17 classmates and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Immediately after the tragedy, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) called for investment in more visible security measures including steel doors, bulletproof glass, and metal detectors.14 One month later, Gov. Scott signed a $400 million bill into law that included a $67.5 million appropriation to arm nonteaching staff, such as administrative and maintenance staff, at every public K-12 school in the state, as well as $99.7 million to fund school resource officers.15
A major increase in federal funding for school safety also followed the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. To support school safety and other resources, for example, the federal government increased funding for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Program under Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act from $400 million to $1.1 billion.16 Notably, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has pointedly refused to rule out allowing school districts to use these funds to purchase guns for teachers.17 Since President Donald Trump signed the STOP School Violence Act on March 23, 2018, an additional $75 million in funding was authorized for violence prevention strategies, including improving communication between law enforcement agencies and school administrators to identify threats and intervene.18 The Federal Emergency Management Agency also received $249 million in grant funding that schools can use to create safe rooms and implement warning systems.19
It is essential to increase investment in school safety and take all necessary precautions to keep students safe while they learn. However, policymakers and government officials must be sure to allocate funding to measures that are proven to make students safer. The following section explores why it is ineffective to invest in the appearance of safety—something that has also increased profit margins for corporations.
Policies to harden schools have not been proven effective
The recent debate around school safety has presented hardening schools—both with visible security measures and zero tolerance policies—as the most important strategy to protect students. Evidence suggests, however, that these stringent security measures do not make schools safer. Several government officials, including some in the Trump administration, have primarily focused on hardening schools through visible security measures such as increased numbers of metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and SROs, as well as arming teachers with guns. Studies on the effects of such stringent security measures have found that these approaches do not increase school safety, and there is unfortunately no evidence that they are effective in preventing school violence.20 Although surveillance cameras may help law enforcement officers identify perpetrators and investigate after an event, it is unclear whether they help deter school violence overall, as students can move misbehavior to places on school grounds that lack surveillance.21 Reviews of school discipline research show that zero tolerance policies are also not effective at reducing school violence.22 The implementation of zero tolerance policies has increased the prevalence of suspension and expulsion to address nonthreatening behaviors from dress code violations to talking back to teachers.23 In fact, these policies negatively and disproportionately affect students of color, students with disabilities, and low-income students.24
Additionally, security personnel and metal detectors specifically have proven to be ineffective at protecting students.25 Some of the sites of the deadliest K-12 school shootings—including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Columbine High School—had an armed SRO or security guard on the scene.26 A 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service explained that there is limited available research on whether SRO programs deter school shootings, and it drew conflicting conclusions about whether SRO programs effectively reduce school violence.27 Proposals to secure schools by arming teachers and other school staff are also unlikely to make schools safer. It is unlikely that armed educators will be able to stop an active shooter: The FBI reviewed 250 active shooting incidents in the United States from 2000 through 2017, and in only seven cases did a civilian with a valid firearms permit stop the shooter.28 Arming teachers and staff is also unlikely to serve as an effective deterrent because most cases of gun violence in schools involve a student bringing a gun to school from home. According to a review of school shootings by the Department of Education and the Secret Service, in more than 68 percent of school shootings from 2013 to 2015, the attacker acquired the firearm(s) from their own home or from a relative’s home.29
Furthermore, researchers have found that other unintended, negative consequences accompany stringent security measures, such as students feeling less safe with higher levels of security because of increased student arrests, and that they are a hindrance to teaching and learning due to out-of-school suspensions.30 The constant removal from and re-entry into school, coupled with the loss of classroom instruction time can profoundly disrupt a student’s academic progress and performance.31 An analysis of data from the 2009–2010 School Survey on Crime and Safety, published by National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), shows that school officials are more likely to refer students to local law enforcement for smaller infractions such as theft and vandalism, issues that the school administration would otherwise handle.32 Unnecessary referrals to law enforcement can lead to students being funneled into the criminal justice system and burdened with criminal records, which ultimately affects opportunities later in life.33 Additionally, there is evidence that increased use of law enforcement and SROs has serious, negative consequences for students of color and students with disabilities.
Stringent security measures harm students of color and students with disabilities
Researcher Jason Nance recently found that in schools with higher concentrations of students of color, there is an increased likelihood of the utilization of punitive discipline policies such as zero tolerance policies and a combination of various stringent security measures.34 Schools where the nonwhite population was greater than 50 percent of the school population were two to 18 times more likely to use a mix of metal detectors, school police and security guards, locked gates, and random sweeps than schools where the nonwhite population was less than 20 percent.35 Data from the Department of Education show that in schools across the United States, students of color, and students with disabilities served by the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are far more likely to be subject to restraint and arrest than white students and students without disabilities.36 In the 2011-12 school year, black students represented 16 percent of the total student enrollment in U.S. public K-12 schools but 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students involved in a school-related arrest.37
Students with disabilities served by IDEA, meanwhile, represented about 12 percent of total student enrollment in U.S. public K-12 schools but accounted for around 25 percent of those arrested and referred to law enforcement; 75 percent of those physically restrained at school; and 58 percent of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement.38 In 2014, a school resource officer in Kentucky handcuffed two children with disabilities by the biceps because their wrists were too small. This led the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to file a lawsuit against the Kenton County Sheriff’s Office for using unnecessary and excessive physical restraint.39 The ACLU stated that law enforcement officials in schools need to be trained on how to work with children with disabilities and trauma; specifically, training should prioritize the learning of appropriate de-escalation skills.40 A federal judge ruled in favor of the students, noting that the officer violated the children’s constitutional rights by using excessive force.41 The lawsuit also prompted a DOJ investigation of the Covington Independent School District, which agreed to enact new policies to ensure discipline practices do not discriminate against children with disabilities.42
The growing school security industry
Increased state and federal funding to protect schools and students has boosted the private security industry.43 In 2017, sales of security equipment and services to public K-12 schools reached $2.7 billion; they are expected to grow to $2.8 billion in 2021.44 According to NCES survey data, the number of schools using video surveillance systems increased from 20 percent of all public K-12 schools in 1999 to more than 70 percent of such schools in 2013.45 Research company IHS Technology estimated that schools and universities spent $768 million on security measures in 2014.46 And from February 2018 to August 2018, that number had ballooned, with school districts investing $900 million into school safety over those months alone.47
These investments demonstrate a commitment to making schools safer for students. However, government officials and school administrators must ensure that they are investing in evidence-based solutions in order to avoid allowing money intended for public schools to go to private security companies and law enforcement agencies. A deeper look into the school security industry shows that advocacy organizations and corporations are poised to increase their profits by selling more products directly to schools. In particular, school safety conferences offer an opportunity for these companies to present and sell their products to parents and administrators.
The motives of school safety advocacy groups are unclear
The school safety advocacy group Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) was founded by two trade organizations: the Security Industry Association (SIA) and National Systems Contractors Association. These companies assign members to the PASS steering committee, which is responsible for “…[bringing] a new vision into reality when it comes to appropriately securing schools.”48 The SIA was a supporter of the innovative STOP School Violence Act and subsequently provided guidance to security companies on how to secure funding under this provision.49
Importantly, PASS is a school safety advocacy organization led mostly by security industry professionals, as is a similar organization, the Secure Schools Alliance (SSA).50 One employee at Allegion, a security company specializing in doorway security products, sits on the boards of both advocacy organizations concurrently. Both groups advocate for school safety and security products and view themselves as leaders in the national discussion to secure schools. Another example is the School Safety Advocacy Council, which is chaired mostly by law enforcement officers.51 The Council hosts multiple conferences throughout the year where security companies can sell their products. The most recent was the Conference on Active School Shooters, which was held in the first week of October 2018.52
The security industry’s growing interest in the education sector may come from a true desire to help improve safety. However, these organizations also have a monetary interest in promoting their products. And it is unclear whether they are selling products that are proven to make schools safer or simply looking for an opportunity to increase their profits. James Marcella, director of Industry Relations for Axis Communications, is listed as an organization leader for the SSA advocacy group.53 In a recent interview with trade magazine “Security Sales & Integration,” Marcella discussed the education market as an area of concentration for electronic security companies and the increased demand for products.54
It is unclear whether the products that Marcella refers to are being assessed for their ability to keep all students safe. Yet this year, several school security conferences offered opportunities for security companies to exhibit and sell products targeted at schools. In June 2018, the SIA held a Government Summit that brought together government employees, congressional staff, security manufacturers, system integrators, technology executives, and law enforcement personnel, among others.55 The conference was sponsored by a variety of security companies, including Allegion, PASS, and SSA.56 Featuring an almost a full day of panels and sessions dedicated to school security, this conference was free for government officials at all levels including federal-, state-, county-, and municipal-level staff.57
The next month, the School Safety Advocacy Council hosted its 13th annual National School Safety Conference in Orlando, Florida.58 This conference boasted an opportunity for exhibitors to present to more than 900 attendees looking for school safety technology, video surveillance, access control, panic alarms, and crisis management tools.59 Also in July, the National Association of School Resource Officers hosted a conference in Reno, Nevada, that provided yet another opportunity for security companies to exhibit and sell products catered to school security.60
The school security products industry is growing even though companies are pushing products without any clear evidence that they are effective in making schools and students safer. Indeed, while stringent, visible security measures may seem like they are increasing students’ safety, there are more effective, evidence-based methods to reduce school violence.
Ultimately, schools and districts need to employ evidence-based methods to improve school climate in order to prevent violence. These include gun violence prevention measures. Schools and districts should also work to conduct more comprehensive research on policies to support school safety and provide clear timeframes in which to implement interventions.
Invest in evidence-based strategies that are proven to be effective
Schools, districts, and the government should exclusively allocate funding to programs and strategies that are proven to make schools safer. After a tragedy occurs, there is an understandable push for investments in stringent security measures. Those investments add to a blossoming school security products industry that funnels money into private companies, but those funds should go toward supporting students with evidence-based programs. Through flooding schools with SROs and implementing zero tolerance policies, current practices have also created environments that put students of color and students with disabilities at risk of accumulating criminal records for minor infractions. Investments in school safety should be more thoughtful and strategic in order to ensure that interventions work for all students.
For example, modifying school climate to facilitate better communication and more positive interactions among staff, educators, and students has been found to be more effective than using coercive disciplinary practices.61 Additionally, positive-behavior support, increased teacher training, and peer mediation interventions are important educational and therapeutic approaches to promote a sense of physical and psychological safety in schools.62 There are also research-based social and emotional skills that can help students address mental health needs, learn to discuss their feelings, and feel more connected to their school community so that they are less likely to engage in negative and harmful behavior.63
Policymakers and government officials should support more research on effective approaches to improving school climate and increasing school safety, with a specific focus on preventing school violence. The federal government, states, school districts, and schools all should examine their data—such as data collected through NCES or Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys—to craft appropriate solutions. School districts in particular should collect more specific data, such as data on the type of violence, where it happened, and the school’s response. These data should be made available to researchers who can highlight the social circumstances that lead to school violence, evaluate responses, and allow administrators to intervene where necessary. And policymakers at all levels should fund and publicize evaluations of promising approaches to improving school safety. This research would also allow policymakers to implement more effective interventions that could help avoid future school shootings and improve overall school climate and safety.
Provide clear time frames for interventions to work
Schools should set clear time frames to implement new interventions on school violence and to measure their effectiveness. In setting these time frames, schools should consider that interventions need time to work. However, interventions that have not proven to be effective after multiple years need to be re-evaluated or discontinued altogether. In particular, schools and school districts should consider the impact of school safety interventions on students of color and students with disabilities, as these students are more likely to be negatively impacted by certain approaches. Eliminating strategies that are not effective prevents wasting resources and makes it easier to identify the strategies that work to make schools safer.
Gun violence prevention measures
One key aspect of preventing school shootings is addressing the numerous gaps in our gun laws that leave communities vulnerable to gun violence. Preventing gun violence in schools does not depend on hardening schools or arming teachers but instead on addressing the rampant problem of gun violence in the United States. CAP has advocated for a number of policy interventions that would help reduce gun violence, including banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines,64 enacting universal background checks for gun sales,65 and investing in community-based violence reduction programs66 and public health research into gun violence.67 Together, these initiatives will make communities—and therefore schools—safer from gun violence.68
Advocates, individuals, and government officials at all levels must do everything they can to prevent school shootings and ensure that schools are safe places for students, teachers, and other employees. That states and the federal government provide additional funding for schools after a tragedy shows that they rightly place enormous value on the safety of the nation’s youth. However, distributing large amounts of money to private companies for school security products has not made schools safer. It is important to systematically invest in safe, healthy, and supportive schools for all students—not just after a devastating event such as a school shooting but also in an effort to prevent these and other forms of school violence.
While security measures can be a legitimate intervention on which to spend resources, aggressively seeking to harden schools and arm educators with guns is not a viable, evidence-based strategy. Students do not benefit from more guns in schools, nor do they benefit from resources going into the pockets of private companies that profit from national tragedies. Investing in a wide array of approaches proven to improve school climate and student safety is the smart thing to do.
About the authors
Bayliss Fiddiman is a senior policy analyst for K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress.
Ashley Jeffrey is a policy analyst for K-12 Education Policy at the Center.
Scott Sargrad is the managing director of K-12 Education Policy at the Center.
The authors would like to thank Dr. Willie H. Bradley, director of Safety and Security at Randolph Public Schools, for helping to guide our thinking on this issue. They would also like to thank their colleagues at the Center for American Progress who provided valuable input and feedback on this report, including Rukmani Bhatia, Catherine Brown, Chelsea Parsons, Maritza Perez, Danyelle Solomon, and Jasmine Harris.