The question of school security, the subject of a Gloucester School Committee public hearing Wednesday at 7 at West Parish School, calls upon us to describe what strategies the district has taken to minimize the potential for violence in our schools.
There are three main areas of focus.
The first is to ensure that the culture and climate in our schools is positive and respectful of all of its members.
Second, schools use a threat assessment system included in our mental health and social services programs which addresses the mental health needs of students and maintains a network of trained professionals that examine the thinking, planning, and other behaviors of students who might be capable of carrying out attacks.
Third, we require a well-orchestrated emergency operations program that coordinates the efforts of schools, the district, and local agencies such as police, fire, and regional services.
The key to reducing the threat of violence in schools must center upon school climate and the ability to promote open communication throughout each building. Relationships within buildings must be such that students know that they can go to administrators or anyone in the building when they feel threatened or worried about their safety. Students must recognize that, if they do not speak up, then they could be putting themselves and their friends in danger. And educators must be astute listeners. In keeping with this openness, bullying and all forms of harassment must be minimal.
A second element is the threat assessment approach to the potential risk that a student might pose to school safety (historically, violence-prone students present the major threat of school violence).
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service produced a report titled, “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States.” The report presents key findings that have implications for the development of strategies to address the problem of targeted school violence. These are:
Targeted violence in schools is rarely a sudden, impulsive act;
Most often, other people knew of the possibility of an attack;
Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to the attack;
There is no accurate profile of students who might commit an act of violence;
Most attackers engaged in concerning behavior prior to the incident or indicated a need for help;
Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures;
Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack;
Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack—in many cases, other students were involved in some capacity;
Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.
The report — again, this was published in 2002 — concludes by stating that, “In light of these findings, the use of a threat assessment approach may be a promising strategy for preventing a school-based attack. Educators, law enforcement officials, and others with public safety responsibilities may be able to prevent incidents of targeted school violence if they know what information to look for and what to do with such information when it is found.”
In sum, we reduce the chance of an attack by focusing our efforts on developing the capacity to pick up on and evaluate available or knowable information that might indicate that there is a threat to safety. This is an essential part of our school health programs working in conjunction with social services and community mental health agencies, seeking to ensure that existing counseling and family programs assist those in need.
The third response has to do with the district’s emergency response plans. The Gloucester school district has established and maintains a comprehensive emergency operations program that includes plans and procedures, hazard analysis, security audits, training and exercises, and plan review and maintenance. This also includes check-ins for visitors at centralized locations, and secure buildings which limit access.
Economically, the potential funding for armed police officers in each school presents a very steep cost. By my calculations, assuming that each officer would earn in the neighborhood of $65,000 plus fringe benefits such as medical insurance, we are looking at an annual allocation of $550,000-600,000.
In our efforts to ensure school safety, we must also be sure that a balance is struck between efforts to maintain physical safety while at the same time preserving an environment that promotes student’s emotional well being.
Schools should not become fortresses, ever fearful of the worst catastrophe. Our course is to emphasize culture and climate, mental health services, and emergency plans as the means for ensuring school safety while balancing those efforts with the emotional well-being of students.
Richard Safier is superintendent of the Gloucester Public School District.