In the wake of yet another horrific school shooting, the public debate re-opens about what we might do to prevent such tragedies in the future.
Some responses are predictable. From one side, we get calls for greater gun regulation – limiting who has access to what kinds of firearms and placing limitations on the second amendment. From the other side, we get calls to give guns to educators, turning our teachers into armed guards. While we get a great deal of hot air and intense debate, neither of these solutions gets traction.
I will avoid critiquing or passing judgment on these two commonly proposed solutions because they are irrelevant. A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it. We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.
So, we re-enter a vicious cycle with each school shooting. First comes the act of violence and television reports of a school under siege. Next comes the heartbreaking images of covered bodies and grieving parents and children. Then, attention shifts to who is to blame, beyond the murderer. What signs did the killer give that they would perpetrate this horrible act? What did law enforcement or the school staff do (or not do) and what was missed?
Next come the calls for someone in power to do something. We look to our elected officials and leaders for answers. But that process always bogs down as entrenched positions take hold. Soon the outrage fades from the news and social media – and we wait for the next tragedy to strike.
And it will.
We need a solution that breaks the vicious cycle and provides us with a real chance at securing our schools from harm. Here are four actionable and interconnected solutions that would improve the safety of our schools that might actually thread the political needle and get something done.
- Put a trained, armed, law-enforcement officer in every school in the United States. These positions are called School Resource Officers and they are typically part of the local police force or sheriff’s office. They have been trained as law-enforcement officers and also have specialized training on working with students and families in schools. School Resource Officers would coordinate security within schools and would provide trained and armed protection for our students and staff. Some communities and schools have these roles, but many do not.
- Increase support for school mental health supports and interventions. School mental health support staff (including counselors and psychologists) conduct assessments and provide follow-up support when students and families are in crisis. But there aren’t enough of them and these professionals need ongoing training on how to support or get help for students and families. Building leaders and teachers also need added training and support on handling and referring mental health issues in schools. We need less talk and more funding on this issue, which is already at a crisis-level across the country.
- Create a federally-funded center on school safety and security. Possibly housed within the Department of Homeland Security, this national think-tank would study school violence and provide up-to-date and evolving best practices and protocols for schools around how to prevent violence and what action steps staff, students, and law enforcement can take in the event it occurs. When there is an airline accident, there is a robust and in-depth analysis and evaluation of what happened and procedures all across the country change and adapt. We need this sort of national analysis and support for schools when it comes preventing school violence as well.
- Improve the physical safety of our schools buildings. We’ve had to make architectural and access changes to places like airports, court buildings, stadiums, and embassies in terms of screening devices and procedures, locking and access systems, and surveillance. While these do bring some level of inconvenience, the reality is that we must respond to the threat-level in which our schools exist. The federal government should establish a zero-interest borrowing program for schools to upgrade and keep their buildings and screening technology state-of-the-art when it comes to school safety. Doing so would make school safety systems available to any school, regardless of their relative wealth.
These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need. Congress and the President need to act and now. A state-by-state and community-by-community approach to this will lead to a piece-meal approach that will take decades to implement. Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.
These four interconnected solutions provide proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today. They are also not going to be free. By my estimations, to implement these four solutions at scale in the United States we will need somewhere around $10 billion dollars. This is indeed a large sum.
However, let us put $10 billion in perspective, the President’s recent budget proposal calls for a $75 billion increase in defense spending, bringing that total to $686 billion for 2019 (and rising to $742 billion in 2023). In addition, he has proposed $25 billion for a border wall with Mexico. While making no statements on the prudence and necessity of these increases, I would argue that the threat facing our schools is more critical at this juncture.
Since Sandy Hook in 2012, there have been 438 people shot and 138 of them killed in 239 school shootings. If some foreign force were coming into our schools and murdering our children, we would consider it an act of war and marshal whatever it took to protect them.
As the Superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, a district with three school shootings in its history – including the Columbine shooting in 1999 – I can tell you this: when a community’s children are murdered the scars never heal and the pain never goes away.
Systems thinker Daniel Kim has said that foresight is the central ethic of leadership. More directly, if we can foresee that something bad will happen but do not take action, then this is a moral failure. Collectively, we have shrugged our shoulders and turned away after each of these tragedies.
No more, America. No more.