As the nation recovers from shootings in El Paso, Texas, Dayton, Ohio, and Gilroy, Calif., parents everywhere are sending their children to school with renewed trepidation.
The teachers receiving them have just as much anxiety, as they also return to a school environment that reflects a nation of educational institutions trying to keep from becoming the next Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas or Santa Monica College.
Heading into the 2019-2020 school year, research indicates that parents have a more pessimistic view of school security. Sixty-seven percent of parents felt that schools have become less safe in the 20 years since the tragic mass shooting at Columbine, according to the March 2019 AP-NORC Poll, a study by the Associated Press and NORC one of the world’s premier independent research organizations.
Safety is also an important issue on college campuses, with 86% of students noting that safety was the top factor for their parents when it came to deciding on a school, according to the College Board and Art & Science Group. The 2019 PDK poll that measures Americans’ opinions of K-12 public schools in the U.S., noted that only 16% of parents named safety and security as a big problem at their school, but in their poll from the previous year, one out of every three parents said they weren’t confident their school could protect their child from an active shooter.
"There’s a whole broader context of what’s been going on in the post-Parkland world … it’s not necessarily one particular incident, but it’s a cumulative effect," says school safety expert Kenneth Trump.
Perception vs. reality
Trump is the president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, that helps improve school security and emergency preparedness.
He has served as an expert witness for mass acts of violence like the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 and the North Park Elementary School shooting in San Bernardino in 2017. According to Trump, parents, students and teachers are all returning to school with increased anxiety due to media reports of mass shootings, but the solution isn’t "security theater," or, as Trump puts it, "Creating a perception, and in some cases a false perception, of heightened security around a school." Trump notes that parents shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of safety by hardware like fencing, fortified entrance ways, cameras and extensive drills, that may give the impression of heightened security measures but ultimately don’t address the root cause of most school violence.
"The common thread across most of them (violent incidents) is that they involve allegations of failures of people, policies, procedures, communications and systems, not allegations of failures of security hardware and product," Trump says.
Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and the author of "Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond — and How Parents Can Help," says school shootings fit directly into the NUTS model for identifying a stressful situation. NUTS stands for Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to the ego, and loss of Sense of control. These combined factors in any given situation lead to stress in both children and adults. According to Fagell, parents should find healthy and helpful ways to manage their stress ahead of the school year.
"We have to figure out ways to become a non-anxious presence for our kids because there’s emotion contagion and when we can’t manage these stressors … it’s very hard to not have that be an added layer of stress on top of whatever our children might already be experiencing," Fagell says.
As parents return kids to elementary school, middle school, high school or college, following these tips can help keep fear and anxiety at bay.
1. Keep things in perspective
Both Kenneth Trump and Michael Dorn, a former police chief and the executive director of Safe Havens International, an international, nonprofit campus safety organization, say there are other threats apart from shootings that are more pressing on campuses across the country.
"An active shooter case is one point on a broad continuum of potential threats," Trump says.
"When we see schools and parents and students focusing intently on an active shooter, the risk that the … most common types of homicide will occur goes up," Dorn says, "Because we’re not focused on preventing what’s most likely to happen to us."
Once they’re within the confines of the school, students face more likely threats like traffic issues, non-custodial parents, bullying, sexual assault, and even weather emergencies. Michael Dorn, a former police chief and the executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit campus safety organization, says focusing on these more typical but less publicized dangers can also reduce the likelihood of a shooting being able to happen because schools and parents will address overarching safety and personnel issues that can contribute to traumatic events. According to Dorn, student supervision is chief among the ways schools can effectively prevent acts of violence and homicide on campus, "but it’s one of the most often overlooked tools that we see." Dorn says paying attention to things like the number of fights at a school or how strictly enforced a school’s dropoff and pick up policy is can give parents a better idea of how safe their child’s school environment is.
And, even with the larger shootings in the news, parents should remember that schools, on the whole, are still safer than they were two decades ago. What’s changed, Dorn says, is the awareness of the existence of mass shootings.
"There’s a difference between being aware of a problem and an increase in the problem," Dorn says.
2. Communicate and participate
Trump recommends that parents communicate their concerns and get information directly from schools throughout the school year.
"Have some honest and open communications when there isn’t a crisis in the headlines in your local community or elsewhere … as parents we have all these different meetings, we meet every month and talk about everything from fundraisers to booster support. That’s great, that’s what school is about, but have one meeting about safety," Trump says.
Trump says the onus is also on schools to be transparent about how they keep students safe when they’re in their care.
"The truth is not every parent is going to be in a parent organization and a club," Trump says. "At the beginning of the year, send out a letter to parents, ‘here are the different types of drills you’ll hear about from your child,’ so you don’t create that anxiety when a kid comes home and says ‘oh we had a lockdown today’ or ‘we did a fire drill and then they timed us on how quickly we could come back in.’"
When parents receive this information it’s important that they read and act on it , Fagell says.
"It doesn’t mean parents need to call the school and start asking 4,000 questions, but … knowing that there’s a plan in place and that the school will take care of your child when there’s a problem could be very reassuring."
If parents do see an area where safety measures can be improved, they should bring it to the school’s attention in a supportive way, Trump says. This includes encouraging their children to report concerns they have to the correct authorities. "It’s not snitching. it may save a life," Trump says.
3. Hold up your end of the deal
Parents have the right to hold schools accountable for keeping students safe, but they also have a responsibility to follow the safety procedures schools put in place. This includes pick up and drop off procedures and rules about how to enter schools during the regular school day.
"Many times parents will run in, park where they’re not supposed to … and want to take their lunch or something, something the kid forgot in. No. The rules are, go to the office. So, first of all, follow the rules and be a part of that process," Trump says.
4. Treat school like school
The experts all stress, above anything, the importance of not introducing anxiety to children by treating going to school like a dangerous activity.
"Anything we do that makes it seem like we’re sending them off to war is problematic," Fagell says.
Taking initial steps to make the transition back into the school year as smooth as possible is great. Rehearse phone numbers, practice routes walking to and from school as well as go over what to do in case of an emergency. "But really what parents should be doing is saying ‘have a great day, I’m so excited I can’t wait to hear what you learned, and I want to hear who you played with – and tell me what the teachers talk about and if they do something funny,’ " says Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and author.
Similarly, Dorn advises parents to pay attention to what’s going on with children to avoid missing possible red flags, but also to see all of the great things their children accomplish.
"I just think there’s really not anything wrong with a lot of connectivity between parents and kids," Dorn says.
Above all, Dorn says, parents should urge children to be aware of their surroundings, not just to catch negative things but also because "you’ll see a lot of good things."
5. Choose fun over fear
With an increased spotlight on gun violence in both the media and in the government, it’s unlikely that parents will stop hearing about mass violence in schools any time soon. While parents have far less control over their child’s surroundings once they enter their school building, they do have the ability to manage their own anxiety and do their part to ensure their children come home in one piece each day.
The most important thing to remember is that from the carefree joy of preschool to the first taste of independence on a college campus, parents and students shouldn’t let fear cause them to miss out on the joy of getting a good education. As Dorn says:
"As soon as we are living in a prison of fear we’ve just lost so much."