Student Safety

Scholar perspective

By | Jon Wells

Pragmatism,  Community Inclusion, and School Safety

Keeping schools safe only seems to get more complicated as our society evolves and changes its expectations of what schools provide for students. Safety and security scenarios require nuanced approaches, differing for large-scale threats like mass shootings or student-on-student violence or dealing with ambiguous issues like social media threats, bullying, student self-harm, and increasing safety concerning non-binary identities and sexualities.

In many ways, school safety has become a commodity. Security firms and manufacturing companies have a financial interest in fortifying and hardening school security for profit and continue to lobby heavily for the use of hardened security types at the state and federal levels. Hardened security is visible safety measures, like metal detectors, bulletproof glass, cameras, armed security, and School Resource Officers (SROs).

Security companies benefit from continuous 24-hour news cycles sensationalizing violent acts stirring panic within communities–all heightened after the horrific events at Columbine High School in 1999. Companies use panic as leverage to get their products into schools. Although strengthening visual forms of security helps with the optical impression of safety and security, hardened schools can be cold, oppressive, prison-like facilities that lack a positive and inviting atmosphere. A student’s ability to feel connected in these spaces may be unlikely and much more difficult than in an inviting environment.

SROs, the uniformed officers assigned to schools, are often perceived to be on-duty. SRO roles and job descriptions differ in each school, district, and state, with officers often operating without explicit policies and procedures. Often, officers are allowed to interact with students how they would on the street, meaning in extreme circumstances, a student breaking a school rule could be treated as a criminal breaking a law. As a result, SROs have opportunities to interact forcefully and violently with students. In an active shooter situation, the presence of SROs could be positive because of response time and proximity. Nevertheless, the presence of officers can become problematic considering the day-to-day operation of the school. Controversy ensues when a student may behave in a disruptive or insubordinate manner, and officers use force and violence to subdue the student–overreaching within the context of a school environment.

Denver Public Schools removed all DPD (Denver Police Department) SROs from district run schools in 2020, citing well-documented issues with student-to-police contact and the likelihood of these juveniles becoming part of the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon.

Additionally, the strained relationship between members of the Aurora community and the Aurora Police Department derives directly from well-documented racist, violent, and unempathetic behaviors of APD officers, including the highly publicized murder of Elijah McLain in 2019. Therefore, the presence of APD officers in Aurora Public School may be problematic and potentially damaging for students who fear for their safety or the possibility of racial targeting from a department with historically racist practices. This issue is applicable  to communities with similar racial and socioeconomic demographics or histories.

Community members and students, as reflected in this issue’s main article, have pondered why SROs are present in schools. The creation of SRO job descriptions, policies, and procedures should be co-constructed between the district, school, and police department. Officers must not be ambiguous security forces in schools but visible and purposeful members of a school community. A more inclusive effort between schools, community, and police in all aspects of safety and security could improve perceptions, equity, and, most importantly, the execution of policies and procedures that keep students safe.

Schools also utilize interventionist or interactionist safety strategies, specifically focusing on mental health. These strategies require mental health professionals to evaluate and monitor students for anxiety, depression, and other identifiers of poor mental health. However, mental health supports that schools use to support students are not always indicitive or helpful when identifying those with the potential for violence. Moreover, funds are often lacking for quality mental health professionals to serve a school properly, with health professionals often taking on tasks unrelated to their field and expertise.

Mental health professionals must also battle the impact of Covid 19, the closing of school districts, and the impact on the mental well-being of children who have dealt with isolation for the last two years. Schools need to provide more support than ever to combat the issues with the pandemic, on top of the numerous needs schools ask their counselors and health care professionals to make.

Both forms of security are expensive. The allocation of funds often limits what schools and districts can afford to implement. Thus, politics and fiscal policies often exacerbate the school safety problem. A mixture of hardened and interventionist school safety strategies would be an appropriate approach to safety measures.

However, extremes often prevail, given current political gridlock and partisanism.

For example, decisions concerning the allocation of tax funds often result in conservative politicians leaning
towards hardened security measures. At the same time, more left-leaning politicians fight for fund utilization towards mental health support and intervention strategies. Politicians merely toeing party lines are not genuinely invested in their constituents’ needs, making it more difficult for schools to make informed, rational, and inclusive choices regarding safety.

Communities need to have a genuinely open conversation about what school safety and security is, while co-developing policies and procedures that support the community’s wants and needs. Then, policies and procedures need review and amendment with consistency. Unfortunately, pragmatic approaches to school safety and security seem near impossible because of greed, politics, and socioeconomic inequities.

Born and raised in Aurora Colorado, Jon Wells has been a teacher in APS for 10 years, focusing much of his scholarship on equity in school safety and security. Jon has an earned doctorate in education, and his research focuses on SROs, community input, and district decision-making. Additionally, he has also worked with Ednium: The Alumni Collective, exploring perceptions of success for DPS graduates. If not writing or teaching, he is playing music or enjoying the
outdoors of beautiful Colorado