Are There Any New Conversations to Be Had About School Safety?

Elementary school girl at the front of the school bus queue

We are proud to share this guest post by Mary Field, a board member at the International School of San Antonio, sharing her observations about which safety strategies actually work and offering hope for parents who are trying to keep our children safe and make our communities safer.  

For anyone caring for children, whether as a parent, foster parent, teacher, etc., children’s safety takes up a lot of space in our thoughts. While our phones and the internet can deliver an unlimited supply of things to worry about, many parents and caregivers want to know what is actually worth paying attention to and what is really something that we will only encounter as the plotline of a movie.

Before I became a foster parent, I dutifully put the little plastic covers over all the electrical outlets in my house. Within a week of arriving at our home, J., a very mobile 18-month-old demonstrated that he could rip off that little choking hazard and stuff it in his mouth within two seconds. Both having J. and his brother, and that particular exercise in futility, made me think about a lot about children’s safety—and whether like everything else, I was doing it all wrong. Almost every evening at bath time, I found myself pawing the countertop or the cabinet behind me. I would be blindly looking for a toothbrush or a recently flung bath toy, and too terrified to take my eyes off of the boys for even one second as they splashed in the bathtub.

While my focus was mostly on safety at home, school safety is front of mind now more than ever, particularly in Texas. As students went back to school in August, schools scrambled to comply with new laws that covered everything from building security to student mental health. School safety, rather than home safety, is more anxiety-producing because parents have less control over what happens there than they do at home. With all of this in mind, I decided to take a look at the big issues of school safety: injuries, general violent crime, gun violence, and bullying.

What I found was often unsurprising (kids get hurt playing sport, not sitting at a desk), and sometimes depressing (often large efforts to change the status quo have limited results.) My biggest finding however, was how much control we do have over children’s safety—if we look in the right places. The below is what I found.

Injuries at School

When looking into data on school injuries, the same statistic pops up again and again: 10–25 percent of childhood and adolescent injuries occur on school premises. It is estimated that children spend about 13–15 percent of their lives in school from ages 0 to 18. With that in mind, the injury statistic seems within the expected range if school is no more or less dangerous than anywhere else. Despite efforts to find more recent data, this statistic, cited as recently as 2022, is from a study done in the late 80s–early 90s. While I am sorry to say that this makes the study over 30 years old, it at least indicates that the numbers have not gotten worse.  

There is almost nothing surprising about injuries at school. Football has the highest number of injuries. Boys are more likely to be injured at school than girls. Blessedly, sports injuries do seem to be declining. What may be surprising to anyone looking into school injuries, however, is how hard it is for public school parents to do anything about them. If they believe the school is at fault, it is very difficult to sue.  

As government institutions, public schools in Texas are covered by something called sovereign immunity. This means that in order for the state or its officers to be sued, the state must consent to be sued or waive its immunity. Private schools do not have the protections of sovereign immunity and parents can sue for damages.

Crime is another piece of school safety. Like with the numbers for injuries on school premises, victimization rates have been fairly steady in recent decades. There was an unsurprising drop in 2020 and 2021, easily attributable to effects of the pandemic. According to the National Institute of Justice, about 1% percent of students ages 12–18 reported being victim of a violent crime at school. Any amount of crime at school is too much, of course. Since the pandemic and the accompanying school closures have skewed the data so much over the past five years it will take several more years of data collection and research to understand the current trends.

Gun Violence in Schools

Every time I mentioned to a friend, family member or acquaintance that I was writing about school safety, everyone, to a person, assumes that I meant gun violence at schools. The specter of gun violence looms so large in our collective consciousness that it overwhelms any other topic under the umbrella of school safety. To understand more about gun violence in schools, I looked at one of the largest databases on gun violence available.

The K–12 School Shooting Database was founded by David Reidman. It is, according to the website, “a widely inclusive, open-source research project that documents when a gun is fired, brandished (pointed at a person with intent), or bullet hits school property, regardless of the number of victims, time, day, or reason.” It has been cited by the New York Times, PBS and USA Today. The raw data (graciously shared with me) includes information on over 2000 school shootings from January 1970 to May 2023. The sheer number of shootings, sometimes hundreds in a year, is alarming.

A close look at the data shows something other than a straight up and down school gun violence problem. Since the database casts such a wide net, it includes many incidents that most people would not think of as “school shootings.” It included such instances as one evening in 2020, when a neighbor shot a man who was stealing construction materials from an elementary school in Gig Harbor, Washington. Many of the shootings, happen on the sidewalks outside of the school, across the street, or a quarter mile away, according to the accompanying news articles. Filtering the column for number of victims in the K–12 Shooting Database yields no surprises. Every name of a school with a large number of victims is familiar. What this database shows us is not so much an astonishing number of schools with shootings. Instead, it shows a violent society where sometimes guns are fired at schools or near them.

The state of Texas has responded to last year’s tragedy in Uvalde by passing legislation which requires (and directs some additional funding) to “target hardening” of schools. Schools are also required to address mental health needs of students. Target hardening of schools can include: use of metal detectors, surveillance cameras, deployment of school resource officers, implementation of lockdown procedures, and run-hide-fight training. Across Texas, a challenging target hardening measure to implement is having an armed security officer on every campus. The legislature passed this law at a particularly difficult time to hire for law enforcement roles. The talent pool is shrinking and there are better paid jobs outside of schools. Since so many of the shootings catalogued by the K–12 School Shooting Database take place in parking lots, outside at dismissal, or down the block, it is also difficult to make the case that target hardening will reduce this subset of shootings.

Furthermore, a systematic review from researchers at the University of South Florida shows that there is no decrease in violence associated with hardening schools. A look back at the data from the K–12 School Shooting Database shows that having guns on campus has the unintended consequence of adding to the count of the number of shots fired on campus. School security officers in Texas, Virginia, Massachusetts and Indiana have all accidentally discharged firearms when on the job over the past five years. In one gruesome incident, a school security officer accidentally shot a fellow employee in the face while showing off his gun.

Bullying in Schools

Ever since the “Columbine” has brought to mind the school shooting, rather than the flower, bullying and school-based gun violence have been linked. Although the narrative that the shooting was revenge by unpopular kids against the jocks who bullied them, a more thorough, years-long investigation revealed that this was not the case. The years and months leading up to the tragedy including many red flags, missed opportunities for intervention and failings by the school and local law enforcement. Even though bullying was not one of the factors in the tragedy, one of its legacies was an increased focus on bullying.

Anti-bullying organizations cite eyebrow raising statistics about the problem of bullying: one source estimates that 20 percent to almost 50 percent of children experience bullying at school. The American Psychological Association estimates that 70% of middle and high school students have experienced bullying at some point. Schools are not necessarily full of super bullies, hunting the hallways for hapless victims, however. Many children are both occasionally the bully and occasionally the victim. According to the APA, again, an estimated 5–15 percent of youth are chronic victims and 7–12 percent of youth are chronic bullies.

In order to learn about what works and what doesn’t work in bullying prevention, I spoke to Judy French, coordinator at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. Cyberbullying may be front of mind for parents who did not grown up with social media and shudder to think what this new tool can bring in the wrong hands. According to French, cyberbullying is still less common than face to face bullying. In fact, it is likely to be an extension of face-to-face bullying and cyberbullying from strangers is relatively rare. The most common type of bullying is social exclusion.

There is no quick fix for the problem of bullying. The most effective anti-bullying efforts start with understanding the community and from there focus on creating connections between community members. There is research that shows that zero-tolerance policies do not work. They simply do not deter kids from bullying. This finding aligns with the idea that an effective anti-bullying program is an ongoing project, whose work is never finished. One to two year initiatives are insufficient. “No one is born a bully,” says French. It is a behavior that can change, and that change takes effort and time.

French also emphasized that an effective bullying prevention program needs to model good behavior. The best programs actively promote “kindness, acceptance of difference and inclusion.” When pressed about whether all the trends in statistics about bullying are going in the wrong direction, French responded that as society we have “not exactly model[ed] the social behaviors that lead to a cooperative society.” During our conversation, French emphasized that bullying is much more nuanced than most people think it is. It is not the bigger, stronger kid taking someone’s lunch money.

The goals of bullying prevention organizations are admirable and important. While looking into the issue of bullying, however, it became clear that the effectiveness of these programs is fairly low. Even with the caveat that bullying prevention is not an overnight process, the increased attention to bullying prevention have not led to a large decrease in incidents. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses tend to find that programs produce only modest results.

Izzy Kalman, founder of the Bullies to Buddies program, started as a school psychologist in 1978. He says that a lot of what characterizes common approaches to anti-bullying actually makes the situation worse. Take for example, a conflict between two siblings over a toy. Now, to the kids in the moment, the toy is pretty important. However, even the kids would probably admit that the toy is not one of the very most important things in the world to them. One of the most important things in the world to the kids is their mom. Once she steps in and gets involved in the conflict, it stops being about a trivial toy and explodes in importance. It becomes a conflict over the love and attention of a parent.

Although Kalman says adults should stay out of many conflicts so that we do not invite this type of triangulation, we still have the problem of the approximately 10 percent of kids who get chronically bullied. (His number aligns pretty closely with the numbers from the APA, that 5–15 percent of children are chronic victims.) These kids may get picked on every day, they hate going to school and need our help. Kalman walked me through his simple and intuitive approach over the phone. “Go ahead,” he directed, “insult me.” It was one of the odder experiences in my life, sitting in my car between appointments for the day, trying to come up with insults for a stranger in another country who had already been generous with his time for our interview. “It is okay,” he said, “you can say the same things over and over.” Kalman, responded to my deluge of insults in the role of a child. With his voice slightly raised, alternately told me to stop, disagreed with my jabs on a factual basis, and threatened that he knew karate. While going along with this strange back-and-forth, the thought drifted through my mind that this “kid” wasn’t doing himself any favors.

Then, we started round two. I threw my verbal punches again. This time, it was like hitting a punching bag that instantly deflated. My “victim” would sort of agree with me and deflect: “I guess I am not as popular as you.” I could almost see him shrug through the phone. During our first round, the perverse fun of throwing insults was obvious. This time, it was… boring. Kalman explained, that bullying loses its appeal when the victims don’t get upset.

According to several papers, research has found that “videos, disciplinary methods, worth with peers, parent training, cooperative group work and increased playground supervision” decrease rates of victimization. Although the details are vague, it is striking to note after my attempt at telephone bullying, that none of these strategies are explicitly aimed at helping children diffuse the situation and to stop being victims. Perhaps the “videos” mentioned in these studies do try to teach that, but it is not clear from the paper. Teaching children to be kind and inclusive, as done through traditional bullying prevention programs, is a good thing to do. Role-playing with Izzy Kalman, however, made me think that there is also a feasible and direct way to help the kids most terribly affected by bullying.

Moving the Needle

Researching and writing this article was a bit like trying to fish and pulling up a tangle of seaweed every time. I wanted to find one helpful nugget about school safety. Perhaps something that was actually pretty dangerous, yet consistently overlooked. Maybe high school musicals had absurdly high accident rates. Instead, the trends flowed in both directions: childhood has never been safer, but gun violence has increased. There are a plethora of mental health resources and anti-bullying resources to help kids, but youth mental health keeps declining. An article like this called for a wider lens. Schools are part of our broader society and our society includes schools. They can never be thoroughly disentangled from each other and held up as separate specimens for independent inspection.

With this in mind, it was time to take a look beyond the schools. University Health is the leader of Safe Kids San Antonio. They provide education and resources to prevent kids from coming into the trauma center. Their representative, Fara Smith, spoke with me on the phone about the big issues that affect children’s safety. Their organization runs a gun lock distribution program. Parents can pick up gun locks free of charge, no questions asked, at various locations around the city. Many police departments around the country have similar programs. Despite this program, and others like it, there has been an increase in unintended discharges. When asked about the uneven use of gun locks, Smith responded that it is really hard to pinpoint why so many gun owners do not use them, even when they have kids at home.

During our conversation, Smith also identified drowning as another safety issue that at best, receives uneven attention. One problem is that there is a misperception of what drowning looks like, it is “quick and silent” rather than loud and attention-grabbing. Another issue is that it is not enough to have a lot of adults around: at least one person needs to be purely focused on the water. No minding the hotdogs on the grill. No scrolling on the phone.

This is perhaps what is so challenging about keeping kids safe at school and everywhere else in the 21st century. We eradicated or nearly eradicated fatal childhood diseases with vaccines, created safety regulations for every playground, toy and item of clothing, and made everyone in contact sports wear a certified helmet. The last horizon of safety can only be met by forming good habits and keeping them.

Over lunch with a young aspiring public policy professional, I mentioned that I was writing this article. Like many others, she assumed that I would be writing solely about gun violence. She mentioned seeing a video online of a bullet-proof shelter designed for classrooms with a price tag of $50,000. She wondered aloud if there was a cheap, easy to implement alternative to such a product that would also keep kids safe. I think that there is, in fact there are many, and they can be applied to different aspects of children’s safety.

The recommendations of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center and Izzy Kalman’s Bullies to Buddies Program appear to be at odds with one another. They both however, ask for the counsel of a wise and trusted adult. While most organizations are happy to sell curricula to school districts and other organizations, modeling pro-social behavior is free. Likewise, a chronic victim of bullying needs a coach who can teach them how to empower themselves and not be a victim. This mentor-mentee relationship does not have to cost anything either. Both programs emphasize empowering the individual- which is again zero-cost. The importance of agency to mental well-being is also a robust finding in psychological research.

The odds of a child dying in a school shooting are about one in 10 million, according to one calculation. There is still too much gun violence in American society and too much of that happens in schools. In the majority of school shootings included in the K–12 School Shooting Database, extremely troubled young people used weapons that belonged to their parents. Programs like Safe Kids San Antonio lead by University Health provide gun locks free of charge, they are also available for less than $10 from major retailers. These locks are completely ineffective if they are not used.

A friend told me once that when her daughter was a baby, her pediatrician told her that when she got old enough for playdates, to remember to ask the parents if they had guns in the house and if they were locked. This is great advice from a pediatrician. It is also not always given (I can confirm that half a dozen physicians, physician assistants and nurses never spoke to me about guns in homes.) This advice also asks us to have a difficult conversation with our neighbors, our favorite (and least favorite) mom friends, perhaps our in-laws. Yes, it is a cost-effective way to keep kids safe, but it is easier to yell at strangers on the internet in the name of children’s safety.

Modelling pro-social behaviors, empowering children, locking up guns, these are all the inexpensive solutions that my friend was looking for. This is not glamorous, and in the day to day it is hard to see that these tiny efforts matter. Despite decades of flashier efforts to improve children’s safety: state anti-bullying laws, bullet-proof safe rooms, we see a lot of needles that haven’t moved very much.

The difference for children’s safety is made in how willing we are to do these small everyday actions of asking our neighbors about their firearms, and for teachers to keep an eye for the one kid in the class who still gets picked on despite the three bullying awareness assemblies this year. After pulling all these threads on children’s’ safety, from schools and beyond, I feel a little less like I was being distraught about the hazards of the bathtub. I am also a little more confident about the conversations I need to have in order to keep kids safe in the future.

Charter Moms Chats

Watch Mary Field speak with Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on November 29, 2023 at 1:00 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

Mary Field is a member of the board at the International School of San Antonio. She has taught Mandarin Chinese in San Antonio since 2015.

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