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October 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 2

For School Leaders, a Time of Vigilance and Caring

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A new survey shows that gun violence has become one of principals' biggest concerns. Are they taking the right steps to make their schools safer?
PolicyLeadership
It should come as no surprise that students across the United States are concerned about gun violence. In the last 25 years, there have been more mass school shootings in the United States than in the rest of the world combined (Agnich, 2015; United Nations Children's Fund, 2017). An average of 20 students are killed each year on K–12 campuses, representing 1–2 percent of all youth homicides (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). And a recent analysis in the Washington Post found that between the school shootings in Columbine, Colorado, in 1999 and Parkland, Florida, in 2018, there have been shootings at 193 schools, directly affecting more than 187,000 enrolled students (Cox & Rich, 2018 March).
Students are understandably afraid, and their feelings of distress about gun violence are heightened by the prevalence of media coverage of mass shootings. As noted by one Michigan principal I spoke with, "there's something in the news" about "gun violence in schools … [just] about every week."
Serious violence in schools isn't the only challenge people within schools perceive as eroding students' feelings of safety and their trust that school can be a nurturing, predictable place. As director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, I recently led a study that explored how principals in America's high schools respond to five specific societal challenges, including gun violence, political division, the spread of untrustworthy information, opioid addiction, and changes in immigration policy (Rogers et al., 2019). Some of these challenges create vulnerabilities and accompanying anxiety felt by specific groups. The broader social and political environment has heightened fear, distrust, and alienation—which we discovered are all reflected in our public schools.
We found that more principals reported their school being seriously affected by the threat of gun violence than by any of the other four challenges—and they told us they see students and students' learning impacted by fears about guns. If we want to know how to help kids feel safe at school, we need to listen to what these principals think about the issue and how they're trying to address it.

Which School Leaders Are Affected? All of Them.

As with many issues that confront students, dealing with the threat of harm from guns often falls to principals. Christopher Wick, a California high school principal who meets regularly with students to learn about their most pressing issues and concerns, reported that the focus of these discussions recently has turned from cafeteria food and social activities to school safety. Wick noted that "it was hard for kids to watch" coverage of the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School, which took place in February 2018. The tragedy in Parkland created "a lot of anxiety" at his school and prompted students to worry about what would happen "if somebody comes on [our] campus with a gun."
Wick isn't alone. Our research team conducted a nationally representative survey of 505 public high school principals and conducted 40 follow-up interviews with a representative set of respondents. Principals from California to Connecticut told us that, in comparison with all other challenges, gun violence "has captured the most attention," represents the "largest stress," and poses the "gravest concerns."
Almost all the high school principals we surveyed and interviewed reported that their schools have been impacted by the threat of gun violence. As Figure 1 shows, the vast majority said their school has faced at least one of the following problems at least once (if not multiple times):
  • Students have expressed concerns about the threat of gun violence occurring in school.
  • Students have expressed concerns related to the threat of gun violence in the community surrounding the school.
  • Students have lost focus in class or missed school entirely due to the threat of gun violence.
  • Parents and other community members have expressed concerns about the threat of gun violence in the school or surrounding community.

Figure 1. Gun Violence-Related Problems in Schools

el201910_rogers_fig1.gif
Source: Rogers, J., et al. (2019). School and Society in the Age of Trump. Los Angeles: UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access.
These fears have been felt across rural, suburban, and urban communities. And while the threat of gun violence impacts schools across all demographic and regional categories, schools with large proportions of students of color have been affected most.
Principals themselves also express fear for students' safety. Many share the sentiment of Colorado's Frank Hartford: "Do I think it's inevitable that it'll happen at every school? No. But do I think that the likelihood of something happening has increased for me, personally? Yeah. It has." Similarly, George Mull, a principal in rural Missouri, said he is constantly asking himself, "What else can we do?" He notes, "It's probably the first thing I think of every morning …. You know, God forbid, [but] what if?"

Responding to the Threat

Principals have to do more than worry about gun violence—they have to do something about it. On average, principals told us they spend more than two hours a week working to counter the threat of gun violence by taking on one or more of three roles: responding to immediate threats; managing the problem by alleviating stress and communicating with the public; and creating conditions to prevent and respond to school shootings.

Principals as First Responders

One in five principals we interviewed recounted incidents involving firearms on campus. Jamie Holt in Missouri acknowledged that her school experiences "scares all the time." In California, principal Louie Spiro asked his secretary to call 911 before confronting an expelled student with a gun in the school parking lot. Although no one was physically hurt, the incident caused lasting psychological harm. Spiro noted that he still feels a residual fear since this incident, and he remains aware of the need to take any student threat as possibly viable.
As with several leaders we interviewed, Holt has established clear protocols for her staff members to follow if they learn a student may have a gun at school. When faced with an immediate threat, however, school leaders may feel the need to act promptly without following each step of a formal protocol. Principal Michelle Kenup reported about a time when she found herself removing a gun from a student's car in the school parking lot—despite never having been trained how to handle a gun.
Less concrete threats also have posed challenges for school leaders. The trend of "copycat" threats flooding schools after a well-publicized school shooting has been documented by the Educators School Safety Network (Hayes, 2018). Responses from principals we interviewed bear that out: One-third reported that their school received threats of mass shootings, bombings, or both at some point during the 2017–2018 school year, mostly through social media platforms. Many of these threats occurred in the days following the Parkland shooting. Because many of these postings "immediately went wild," as one school leader put it, principals were tasked with trying to determine "whether or not [they were] credible threat[s]."
Regardless of the intent or credibility of threats against schools made via social media, such threats substantially impact school communities. As Utah principal Pete Pedersen remarked, when a student threatens to "bring a gun to school and … take care of business … that causes us a little bit of panic." The threats also create havoc in leaders' personal lives. A number of principals recounted receiving calls late at night, prompting them to jump out of bed and into action. Each incident requires investigation, follow-up, and often conferences with police and students.

Communicating Well, Addressing Anxiety

Principals also spend considerable time and energy addressing stress and anxiety and talking with various constituencies about the problem of gun violence, as Figure 2 reflects. Almost all principals reported that they seek to reduce students' concerns by talking to students and connecting them with counseling services, and 79 percent said that they met with student groups to talk about how to address threats to the school posed by firearms. Fewer principals reported talking with the media or community leaders and public officials about the threat of gun violence. When principals engage the public, however, they are more likely to do so around this issue than around any other challenge they face.

Figure 2. Principals' Actions Related to Gun Violence

el201910_rogers_fig2.gif
Source: Rogers, J., et al. (2019). School and Society in the Age of Trump. Los Angeles: UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access.

Creating Conditions to Prevent a Shooting—Yet Preparing for the Worst

Principals want to do more than calm anxieties about gun violence; they aim to keep students safe by preventing school shootings. Most principals we interviewed have focused their efforts to prevent gun violence on "hardening" their school campus. Many leaders detailed new investments in "safety upgrades" to their physical plant, typically including security cameras, electronic doors, safety locks on teachers' classrooms, safety coating on glass, and stronger windows. Schools have also moved to limit entry and exit to one "secure" site on campus.
These strategies have been adopted in big cities, small towns, and suburbs across the country, often at substantial cost, as journalists John Cox and Steven Rich (2018, November) have delineated. As principal Frank Hartford in Colorado acknowledged, community members and public officials have pressured schools to take preventative measures aimed at protecting students' lives. Michigan principal Gerald Wise explained that the new safety measures are meant to communicate that "the school is trying to do something to combat this."
Many schools have begun to train educators and students on how to effectively respond if a school shooter is near them. Lockdown drills are now regularly conducted alongside annual fire or weather emergency drills. Schools are increasingly encouraging students to envision themselves playing an active role in ensuring their safety. Far from just "duck and cover" routines, these trainings tend to emphasize what principal Olivia Minor in Wisconsin described as "active code red interventions." Some schools now employ the "A.L.I.C.E." training method, which encourages students to use one of several strategies (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, or evacuate), depending upon the situation. Gerald Wise in Michigan asserted that this type of training "puts more tools in your toolbox in order for you to be able to handle or confront situations."

Toward a Public Health Approach

Despite their tireless and often heroic efforts, most principals we interviewed emphasized a narrow set of strategies for preventing gun violence at their schools. Their attention to hardening school campuses likely reflects the overriding sense of vulnerability created through mass school shootings. It's understandable that, with parents, students, and staff members feeling vulnerable, principals would aim to establish impermeable barriers. But while strengthening doors and similar "hardening" may contribute to a holistic strategy, such measures, in and of themselves, represent at best a partial solution to a multifaceted problem. Public institutions cannot be wholly sealed off from the communities they serve. Nor should they be. And physical barriers alone do not address the underlying conditions that lead to school shootings (Benbenishty & Astor, 2018).
Eric Jasper, a principal in suburban Michigan, talked with us about a broader approach to fostering safety used at his school. He spoke to the importance of providing mental health services, training students in "how to treat each other," and promoting an effort in all parts of the school community to prompt students to look out for their peers. These strategies, Jasper stressed, "are more important than the hard, physical stuff like bulletproof glass, clear backpacks, and all those kind of things."
Jasper's relationship-centered efforts to make his campus safe are consistent with the consensus view of most school-safety researchers, which is that to prevent gun violence, schools must draw from a fuller set of strategies than merely intensifying security and surveillance. What's more likely to reduce the incidence of violence at schools is turning to a public health model that emphasizes systems and supports to promote safety and that gets to the source of the problems behind threats or violent acts (Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence, 2013). This approach calls for principals to focus attention on establishing a school climate in which students feel a sense of connection with, and responsibility toward, one another. It also entails investing in counselors, psychologists, and social workers who can identify students in need of counseling and provide mental health services. As a long-term strategy, this approach would also address conditions outside schools that endanger students during school hours, such as strategies to limit access to the most dangerous and destructive weapons (Astor et al., 2018).
Christopher Wick, the California principal mentioned earlier, embraces the comprehensive public health approach even as he accepts that his "number one job" is to ensure his students are safe on campus. While his school has taken actions to secure the campus—reducing the number of entry points and requiring student identification cards—Wick has rejected calls to install metal detectors because of their possible effect on students' sense of well-being and feelings of trust. He tells students, "We don't want you to feel like you're in an armed camp." Instead, he encourages students to care for one another, and he and his staff try to make their own sense of caring obvious. "We engage with kids, and we talk to them," he explained. "If somebody looks like they're not having a good day, we ask them about it. There are lots and lots of people on campus doing that all the time. It's probably one of our strengths." When, as happens, students at Wick's school "display signs of having mental [health] issues or just have a difficult time on campus," his leadership team "brings those kids in and … counsels them as much as we can." Wick concludes, "It's really about being vigilant."
Given the rising sense of uncertainty and vulnerability in schools documented in our study, principals across the nation would do well to follow Wick's lead and place additional emphasis on public health strategies to reduce the threat of gun violence and ensure student safety.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Have you felt external pressure to make your school less vulnerable to a school shooting? Have you taken any of the measures described in this article, or similar measures?

➛ Do you think these measures have made your school safer? Have they made it feel safer?

➛ Do you find students are fearful about gun violence? How have you responded when a student shares this fear with you?

References

Agnich, L. (2015). A comparative analysis of attempted and completed school-based mass murder attacks. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(1), 1–22.

Astor, R. A., Bear, G. G., Bradshaw, D. G., Cornell, D. G., Espelage, D. L, & Flannery, D. (2018). Call for action to prevent gun violence in the United States of America. Charlottesville, VA: Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence.

Benbenishty, R., & Astor, R. A. (2018). Proposed policies to reduce weapons in schools: Based on research from an ecological conceptual model. In J. Dwyer (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Children and the Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). School-associated violent death study. Atlanta, GA: Author.

Cox, J. W., & Rich, S. (2018, March 25). Scarred by school shootings. The Washington Post.

Cox, J. W., & Rich, S. (2018, November 13). Armored school doors, bulletproof whiteboards and secret snipers: Billions are being spent to protect children from school shootings. Does any of it work? The Washington Post.

Hayes, C. (2018, March 12). After Florida shooting, more than 600 copycat threats. USA Today.

Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence. (2013). December 2012 Connecticut school shooting position statement. Journal of School Violence, 12(2), 119–133.

Rogers, J., Ishimoto, M., Kwako, A., Berryman, A., & Diera, C. (2019). School and society in the age of Trump. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access.

United Nations Children's Fund. (2017). A familiar face: Violence in the lives of children and adolescents. New York: Author.

End Notes

1 For instance, 89 percent of principals we surveyed noted that incivility in the broader political environment has impacted their school.

2 As with all principals mentioned here, Christopher Wick is a pseudonym.

John Rogers is a professor of education at UCLA. He serves as the faculty director of Center X, which houses UCLA's Teacher Education Program, Principal Leadership Institute, and professional development programs.

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