Academic journal article Education Next

Protecting Students from Gun Violence: Does "Target Hardening" Do More Harm Than Good?

Academic journal article Education Next

Protecting Students from Gun Violence: Does "Target Hardening" Do More Harm Than Good?

Article excerpt

WHEN CONFRONTED WITH THE HORROR of school shootings, we face a dilemma. Naturally, we are deeply troubled by such incidents. The tragedies are so sad and profound--for the families, the schools, the surrounding communities, and the nation as a whole--that it is difficult to ignore these events as statistical white noise. Yet from a rational perspective, we need to recognize that schools, on the whole, are extremely safe places for young people. A joint report from the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education concluded that children and youth were 87 times more likely to die by murder or suicide outside of school than in it (see Figures 1 and 2).

How do we weigh our awareness of the overall safe character of U.S. schools against the compelling desire to prevent more school shootings if at all possible? How do we find balance between these two perspectives? In our view, achieving such a balance means taking rational and effective actions to prevent school shootings while also being cautious not to sacrifice educational goals or the school climate for the sake of exaggerated safety concerns.

One approach that risks sacrificing these values is an overemphasis on "target hardening," which focuses primarily on safety and security technologies. Mass shootings have prompted the target hardening of schools through the expansion of technologies such as metal detectors and surveillance cameras, the deployment of school resource officers (SROs), and the implementation of lockdown procedures and "run-hide-fight" training. These measures are intended to diminish fear and build a collective sense of safety among students and teachers. They also are thought to provide a level of administrative control and a consistent monitoring of student behavior.

In recent decades, these practices have become increasingly popular, particularly in public schools. For instance, the share of public schools employing security professionals rose considerably between 2005-06 and 2015-16, increasing from 42 percent to 57 percent having security staff; from 36 percent to 48 percent having law enforcement officers; and from 32 percent to 42 percent having SROs. Perhaps even more telling, security cameras were present in only 19.4 percent of public schools in 1999-2000 but were installed in more than 80 percent of such schools by 2015-16 (see Figure 3). Likewise, practices such as locking or monitoring doors and using metal detectors have also seen modest increases during these same time periods. Metal detector checks are more common in city schools and in those serving many students of color and low-income students.

While target hardening overall is more widespread in urban public schools, research suggests that parents in suburban schools also embrace the implementation of security measures. Suburban parents readily accept target hardening as a sign that schools are taking violence seriously and are adopting measures to protect the physical and mental well-being of their children.

Regardless of location, school and district leaders are under pressure to adopt target-hardening strategies as a means to protect against violence. Serious incidents, such as school shootings, are highly publicized. The media frequently and intensively cover these events, leaving disturbing images fresh in the minds of parents, who then understandably feel that schools have become unsafe spaces for their children and argue to administrators that more must be done to protect them. Additionally, school communities turn to target hardening to safeguard against potential litigation that could stem from a perception that a school is "unsafe." Layering a school with various security technologies and providing security training for staff allows administrators and policymakers to point to concrete steps they have taken to safeguard buildings.

In 2018, the high-profile school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas, prompted political action. …

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