Facts, not fear, ought to drive efforts to keep Washington’s students safe at school

Friday, November 30, 2018
A Washington state task force on school shootings is among dozens of similar groups around America working diligently to identify ways of deterring mass shootings in schools.
But to be effective, measures to prevent school shootings must be based in facts, not fear. And the fact is mass shootings in schools remain rare, and efforts to support the behavioral health of all students are the most effective investment communities can make in the safety of their schools.
The ACLU-WA, a member of the Washington workgroup, is therefore opposing the workgroup’s recent recommendation that the Legislature create a dedicated source of state funding for police officers in Washington schools, and urging our members and supporters to do the same. The reason is simple: there exists no proof that police in schools reduces the likelihood of school shootings, while it has been shown that the presence of police increases the risk of other kinds of harm.
We are encouraging the Legislature to instead focus state resources on another of the workgroup’s recommendation: interventions to create a positive school climate and additional student supports.
Positive school climate investments are likely to prevent school shootings and are also likely to increase students’ educational outcomes and school health overall. Comprehensive prevention of violence in schools involves universal programs to improve school climate, supports in schools to help struggling students (including counselors, psychologists, and additional staff for special education), and intervening with students who are moving down a pathway to violence.
By contrast, there is a dearth of evidence that school police deter mass shootings. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has twice noted the absence of empirical evidence to support the position that school police prevent shootings. School police or security officers were present at about 1/3 of the schools with recorded instances of gunfire during school hours between 1999 and 2018, including at 4 of the 5 schools with the most serious incidents; perpetrators in some of those schools specifically sought engagement with police officers in their school.
The research on whether school police prevent other forms of violence is, at best, mixed, with some researchers finding small reductions in certain types of school violence due to the presence of a school police officer, and some researchers finding no impact or even increases in school police.
Meanwhile, our state currently has much room for improvement in terms of behavioral health supports for students. Washington’s funding for school counselors is meager, and as a result, the average school counselor carries a caseload that is twice the nationally recommended average.  At the same time, schools and police embedded in schools too often respond to childish misbehavior with the full force of criminal law. This heavy-handed approach promotes the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and it has dramatic consequences for the children it affects. 
Effectively preventing school shootings requires us to consider these and other potential unintended consequences. It also must involve meaningful engagement and participation by those closest to the issue. The workgroup lacked representation from key stakeholders, including classroom teachers, students in K-12 public schools, parents of young people in K-12 public schools, communities of color, and people who have identified disabilities or mental health needs.
It’s only fair and right that those who stand to be most affected by a potential threat have a say in how it is addressed. It is our hope future conversations include all stakeholders and center on evidence-based approaches designed to keep every student in Washington safe and learning in their school.