Research

Prevention measures, not hardening techniques, decrease school violence

What works is building students’ trust in adults, trauma-informed training for school resource officers and gun-law reform such as the bipartisan bill just signed into law, a Carolina school safety expert said.

Dorothy Espelage
Dorothy Espelage, Williams C. Friday Distinguished Professor in the School of Education, focuses on how to create safe climates in which students can thrive. In conducting her research on school safety, she regularly goes into schools to better understand what is happening.

The gun bill that became law on June 25 and supports proven methods for decreasing violence in schools is a “miracle,” said Carolina’s Dorothy Espelage.

Espelage, William C. Friday Distinguished Professor in the School of Education, focuses on how to create safe climates in which students can thrive. She regularly goes into schools to better understand what is happening. Espelage belongs to the Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence, which recently revised its eight recommendations in “Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America.”

“The law pays attention to some of our eight-point plan. There will be more money for mental health resources and to hire people to do threat assessments to identify people who have the propensity toward violence and access to guns. We’ve never been successful in that area. That’s a miracle,” she said.

The law also funds an increase in school safety, beefs up background checks, especially for juveniles and gun buyers under 21, and provides millions to help states put red-flag laws into place so authorities can confiscate guns from dangerous people.

“Above all, anything we can do to create a positive environment in schools where kids trust the adults in the building will help,” she said. “That’s been proven.”

Espelage answered The Well’s questions about school safety issues.

What are news media not covering?

There’s not enough attention to prevention. Doing work on violence prevention has been challenging because most solutions in the last decade have been reactive and support hardening of schools, like installing metal detectors and arming teachers. Teachers are armed in some districts in this country, and they have been. My 7th-grade history teacher had a gun in his desk.

Hardening has escalated to things like bulletproof backpacks and bulletproof whiteboards. The billions of dollars that school districts pay to school safety companies are well documented. Nothing seems to have worked. The only thing that hardening proponents say works is locked doors, as long as the shooter is outside the doors.

The literature is clear on prevention. When students trust the adults at school enough to go to them, the adults can avert school violence. Huge numbers of school shootings would have happened if there had not been a tip line or an app to report something. Many school systems have a “See something, Say something” program. The idea is similar to the Sandy Hook app and free training that’s been available for a long time.

People are also not asking how do we create an environment of trust between students, parents, teachers and administrators? That’s our No. 1 recommendation — a national requirement for schools to assess school climate and maintain physically and emotionally safe conditions and positive school environments that protect all students from bullying, discrimination, arrest and assault.

According to our research, kids will overcome the anti-snitch culture to report something if they trust the adults in the building.

What other legislation would you like to see passed?

We’ve recommended a ban on assault-style weapons, high-capacity ammunition clips and products that modify semi-automatic firearms to enable them to function like automatic firearms. We’ve also recommended required background checks on all gun purchases. That didn’t make it in this bill, but I hope such legislation will happen soon.

This new law is no different than the plan we’ve put forth for many years. The difference this time is that some key people in Congress listened and understood the importance of things like adequate mental health resources.

You mentioned more training for school resource officers. How will that help?

It’s critical. A 2021 Rand report showed that across North Carolina middle schools, while SROs’ presence reduced serious violence, the increased presence of SROs with guns was associated with a 68% increase in suspensions and a 132% increase in expulsions, especially for Black and Hispanic youth. These data point to the importance of training SROs to address race disparities in school discipline and understanding how they can improve school safety and school climate. I have seen firsthand in North Carolina schools where SROs are very connected with the school community, the community outside, parents, kids. Despite having guns on them, they’re still part of a positive school climate and are critical to school safety.

Where do SROs come from, and do standards for SRO training exist?

Most SROs are cops, like ones in the Miami-Dade school district with its own police department and some 400 SROs. They report to the chief of police and their training is controlled by the police union.

In North Carolina, most SROs work for the sheriff’s department.

It’s important for school district personnel and parents to have a say on which SRO stands in front of their school. Parents are never on a hiring committee.

Large reports and databases sometimes make it look as if there’s no variability in SRO training. There is. In Maryland, for instance, an SRO is required to have trauma-informed training every year. That’s just one state. There’s so much variability. Many SROs have bachelor’s degrees. That’s not necessarily the case in rural school districts, but in large districts they do. Some will have taken a basic psychology course, maybe a child psychology course.

A “60 Minutes” show last year covered the move to defund the police. If we defund the police, there will be no police in school. If you’ve been in a school, you understand that some kind of security is needed. Even “60 Minutes” couldn’t get it right. I wanted them to talk about the big pink elephant in the room.

We’re pushing for basic trauma-informed approaches to training where SROs ask “What happened to you?” rather than “What is wrong with you?” when faced with student behaviors. We also feel that all adults, including SROs, should understand the importance of social-emotional learning, restorative approaches and the ability to work effectively with marginalized youth, for example, disabled students, gender and sexual minority youth. That’s important because most SROs have no idea how to interact supportively with a child who has a disability or about diverse sexual or gender identities. They largely train on de-escalation, how to run an active shooter drill or clean and store their gun. There’s no required continuing education on how to best build meaningful and trusting relationships with students and parents in schools.

What other context would help us understand the state of school safety?

From 2014-2017, the National Institute of Justice awarded $246 million to nearly 100 different safety initiatives in K-12 schools. Congress appropriated the support, and it was called the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative. By 2018, the year of the Parkland shooting, funding decreased to $6 million a year. Parents at Parkland pushed for hardening, so funding for prevention efforts under the initiative was cut. Most of that $6 million now goes toward evaluating hardening techniques. So we are still not focused on prevention.