By Sarah-Jane Lorenzo
In the aftermath of the February 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, state boards of education are weighing how to advance school safety by bolstering measures to protect students and prevent violent acts.
In March alone, nearly one in three state boards discussed school safety and student wellness. As they consider their options, states such as Massachusetts, Utah, and Kansas are reevaluating existing programs and considering additional steps.
In a lengthy discussion during their March meeting, Kansas board members reviewed existing school safety supports, such as the Kansas School Safety Hotline. They also considered pending legislation that would help update the Model Kansas School District Emergency Operations Plan and provide funding for school security measures.
While Kansas focused primarily on physical safety, Utah convened a study session in March to consider a broad range of strategies. The board addressed dimensions of physical safety such as drills and emergency preparedness but also considered the need to support students’ well-being through family engagement, teacher training, and provision of social and emotional supports.
In Massachusetts, the board similarly discussed supporting students’ mental health and personal well-being. In February, Massachusetts State Board Chair Paul Sagan shared that he had asked the state’s acting commissioner of education to review and discuss with the board statewide precautions to keep students safe. In March, the full board convened a panel of experts and considered policies and practices for physical safety and programs that support students’ social and emotional well-being. That two-tiered approach recognizes the importance of emphasizing mental wellness and student care—rather than solely bolstering security measures—to prevent school shootings.
In response to board member Ed Doherty’s suggestion, the Massachusetts board also considered the divisive national question of whether educators should be armed. Following a thorough discussion of research, the board voted unanimously to approve a resolution establishing its position that arming educators will make schools less safe and opposing any move to do so.
Dewey Cornell, director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project, underlines the potential of programs for student support. He calls for better programs to identify and support troubled students, victims of bullying, and students with emerging mental illness.
Cornell studies the efficacy of structured prevention supports in his research on threat assessment programs at the University of Virginia. Such programs, which are currently used across Virginia, require schools to establish response teams that identify and evaluate threats so they can provide supportive, thoughtful intervention to reduce the risk of violence, Cornell said in an interview. Teams subsequently follow up with involved students to assess intervention results.
The threat assessment model is one of several strategies other states have considered in recent months to strengthen their systems of support. Anonymous tip lines and comprehensive mental health programs are among the options states have reviewed and worked to enhance. However states choose to respond, Cornell urges an emphasis on prevention. “Most of the mass shooters had troubled backgrounds,” Cornell said, “and could have been helped.”
Sarah-Jane Lorenzo is a research consultant with NASBE. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.