Las Vegas Sun

September 17, 2019

Currently: 74° — Complete forecast

Sun editorial:

Security in schools shouldn’t rely solely on physical features, guards

In Fruitport, Mich., workers are busy building a $48 million fortification bristling with security equipment and featuring cutting-edge architectural designs to protect occupants in the rare event that an intruder should gain entry.

So what type of military personnel will be housed there?

None, actually. The facility is a high school.

Welcome to the dystopia of gun violence in America, where school districts nationwide are spending billions to counter the threat of school shootings. In Fruitport, the new school includes such features as curved hallways to reduce sightlines, partial walls spaced in hallways to give students cover, shatter-resistant windows, and “shadow zones” in classrooms where students can shelter in place out of view from shooters.

“When we open it, it will be the most secure high school building in the state,” Fruitport’s superintendent told The Washington Post.

But as school administrators address gun violence, it’s critical they don’t focus entirely on fortifying school buildings. In fact, students will be harmed if the situation turns into an arms race to construct the most hardened buildings.

That’s true for a variety of reasons. One, it’s vital to invest in student counseling, mental-health services and other forms of student support. Those services are essential to detecting and addressing warning signs of violent behavior among students, eliminating bullying and giving students what they need to succeed in the classroom. Overspending on security equipment threatens to eat into resources for counseling and support.

Second, while the bunkering approach might reduce the risk of a shooting, it comes at a cost to students’ overall well-being. A recent study from Ohio State University showed that students and staff in schools with high levels of security measures report having an elevated level of fear.

“Instead of simply hardening schools against attack,” the researchers write, “educators should focus on building school environments characterized by mutual trust, active listening, respect for student voices and expression, cooperativeness, and caring relationships with and among students.”

In addition, security enhancements aren’t foolproof. Even in Fruitport, the superintendent acknowledges that the state-of-the-art high school won’t be “completely safe from someone who desires to cause harm.” Meanwhile, filling schools with armed guards and allowing teachers to carry guns at school come with all sorts of problems, including raising the possibility of accidents or abuses of authority.

Then there’s the cold fact that for young people, the biggest risk of gun violence isn’t at school. It’s in their homes and their communities. More children are killed by their parents in murder-suicides or domestic violence incidents than at school.

That being the case, a federal red flag law is a necessity. Nevada and several other states have adopted the legislation, which allows authorities to seize guns from individuals who have been deemed a threat to themselves or others. But it should be the law of the land.

To the detriment of our children, the $2.7 billion security industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying decision-makers to funnel safety resources into their sophisticated and expensive products. They’re getting plenty of traction too.

“School safety is the wild, wild West,” security consultant Mason Wooldridge told The Associated Press. “Any company can claim anything they want.”

That’s dangerous, but Nevadans have some reason for optimism.

Former Gov. Brian Sandoval took a step in the right direction in 2018, assembling a diversified school safety task force whose members included a behavior health care professional and a social worker in addition to law enforcement authorities and school officials.

No. 2 on the list of the group’s six policy recommendations: “Make a significant investment in school-based mental health professionals and services.”

This past legislative session, lawmakers approved a payroll tax extension providing an estimated $98 million in school funding over the biennium, with the majority of the new funding going to school safety and educator raises.

Now, it’s critical to spend the money on student support, not just new security equipment. Bunkering our children in what amounts to prisons patrolled by armed guards isn’t the answer.