098: Do school shooter trainings help (or hurt) children?

A few months ago a listener in my own home town reached out because a potentially incendiary device had been found on the elementary school property, and many parents were demanding disaster drill training in response.  The listener wanted to know whether there is any research on whether these drills are actually effective in preparing children for these situations, and whether it’s possible that they might actually cause psychological damage.

In this episode we review the (scant) evidence available on drills themselves, and also take a broader look at the kinds of measures used in schools in the name of keeping our children safe – but which may actually have the opposite from intended effect.

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Jen: 01:21 Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We have another serious topic to cover today and it’s probably one that you don’t want to listen to with children around. I received a question from listener Selena about 6 months ago saying that an incendiary device had been discovered on the grounds of the public school that my daughter would actually going to be attend if we weren’t going to homeschool. And that some of the parents who were very worried and were demanding video surveillance and disaster preparedness drills and she wants to know whether there was any research available about the impacts of drills to prepare children for things like active shooters. And I wanted to know are these drills effective? And then when I started researching this issue, I went down a complete rabbit hole related to the effectiveness of other kinds of school security measures as well as bullying, as a potential cause of violence in schools.
Jen: 02:08 And the kind of relational aggression that girls particularly to practice as well. So expect episodes on those topics soon in the coming months. But here to kick us off today on this mini series is Dr. Ben Fisher. He’s Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at University of Louisville. Dr. Fisher’s research focuses on the intersection of education and criminal justice, but particular focus on school safety, security and discipline. He approaches this research from an interdisciplinary perspective with a focus on inequality that is grounded in his Ph.D. in community research and action from Vanderbilt University, which prepared him to work on this view from a social justice orientation. Welcome Dr. Fisher.
Dr. Fisher: 02:46 Thank you. Glad to be here.
Jen: 02:47 And so before we get going with our conversation today, I do want to just take a minute and acknowledge that we’re recording this in the week after a gunman killed 22 people in Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and then another gunman killed 9 people outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio. So, it feels very raw to me to be discussing this today. We’re going to talk today about the likelihood that a child will be killed in a school shooting. And despite the impression that we might get from the endless news cycles that keep these kinds of incidents top of mind when they happen, our chances of dying from many other causes are far, far greater than dying during a mass murder. But despite this, I do believe there are too many guns in our society and not enough control over who has access to them and what they do once they have them.
Jen: 03:30 And I also think that these kinds of events are not the ultimate problems we need to deal with. Yes, we need to make it much more difficult to access guns. So, people who feel disaffected can’t harm large numbers of people very easily and instituting tighter gun control in a country where so much of the political power is tied to the money provided by the gun lobby currently seems like a really insurmountable challenge. But in my mind, the far greater challenges, the one facing our families and schools where we need to address what is leading children and later adults to feel so disconnected from their families and communities, but the best tool they have to express their emotions is to kill people. So with that said, let’s talk about some ways we might be able to do this. Okay. So let’s start by putting this topic in context because I think many parents, myself included before I started this research, are probably under the impression that there’s kind of an epidemic of violence and particularly violence perpetrated by people with guns in schools. Dr. Fisher, can you help us understand whether that is in fact the case?
Dr. Fisher: 04:26 Well, we certainly do have a problem with violence in our country as we’ve seen in very clear fashion this past week. However, the statistics also indicate that our countries become safer and safer over the past two decades in terms of crime and victimization rights. Schools in particular have not been as safe as they are in the past 20 years in terms of rates of all sorts of crime and violence in schools. So although violence certainly does continue to be a problem, particularly gun violence and many of its forms compared to where we were two decades ago, things are going fairly well.
Jen: 05:02 Yeah, I was really surprised by that. It seemed as though there was sort of a high watermark around 1992 and 1993 where the rate of homicide risk was much higher than it has been in the more recent years, I think with the exception of the year of the Sandy Hook shooting. And why do you think that is?
Dr. Fisher: 05:21 Well, it’s been across the board with all types of crime and violence. It’s not just gun violence, although it does include that. Part of that is most certainly regression to the mean where when stuffs gets really bad, it is going to get better on average. When stuffs going really well, it’s going to get worse on average. So that’s gotta be part of it in my mind. And I’m a little less familiar with sort of the broader sociological explanations around long-term reductions in crime, but we’ve seen parallel trends in community policing strategies where officers are more focused on building relationships with community members instead of going out and cracking skulls, only I say that and just mostly, but they’re less concerned about, you know, just finding and responding to crime. There’s a lot more of a proactive approach. So, there’s that law enforcement perspective on it, but that’s not too much of my area of expertise. So, I don’t want to step away like too much here.
Jen: 06:19 No worries. A couple of the stats that stuck out to me as I was researching that was the deaths by different causes over that period. And bicycle accident was one of the highest ones at 2,400 and this is deaths of children by various causes, a fire accident of some kind 1900 and change, accidental fall around 1700, lightning strikes 251 and then school shootings 113 children. And then just to put that number in context, only about half a percent of the 24,000 children who were murdered in that period between 1999 and 2013 were killed at school. So I think there is still a lot of violence in our society and there are definitely children who are meeting an end way before their time is due, but only a tiny fraction of those are actually happening in school. I was I guess maybe I just hadn’t thought about it, but those isolated incidents tend not to get the same coverage that the large scale incidents at school have. I think maybe part of it.
Dr. Fisher: 07:20 Yeah, that’s right. Statistically speaking, schools are among the safest place for children and youth to be compared to other homes, neighborhoods, or almost anywhere else. Unfortunately, a lot of the media coverage around gun violence that occurs in schools, that’s sort of gripped the public imagination and some degree, rightfully so because it’s a sort of an absolute affront to the conscience to see the sort of gun violence happen in schools regardless of how common or uncommon it is. But in another sense there’s been this sort of undue fear that has been stoked to where there’s this idea that schools are dangerous places that need to be locked down and targets that need to be hardened in certain ways so that strangers or students with guns and ill-intentions can’t do violence there.
Jen: 08:12 Yeah, I think parental fears are really key issue and some research that I saw in that said that somewhere between 25% and 30% of parents sort of have this sort of like a background level of fear about the researchers quiz them on their oldest child’s safety while in school in most years. And right after Columbine that spiked up to about 55% and then I guess there was another incident in Santee, which I think is in Florida, that was led to a spike in 45% and then only up to 33% right after Sandy Hook. So I wonder if people were sort of becoming a little bit immune to it. You know, the spikes were not quite so high each time above that baseline level, but still that’s a very, I mean a third of parents almost are between a quarter and a third of parents have some kind of fear about their child’s safety in school.
Dr. Fisher: 08:57 What I think was interesting is that a parallel research that has been conducted with students finds almost no effect of these shootings. So, I’ve conducted research where we measured students’ levels of fear and feelings of safety at school and Sandy Hook happened to occur right in the middle of our data collection. So, we could compare those students right before or right after and there are similar research done by Lynn Addington around the Columbine shooting in 1999. And both studies found statistically significant effects, but ones that were so small as to actually be practically zero. So, essentially no changes in students’ perceptions of safety or fear. So, this fear seems to be taking hold mostly in our adults and less so in our students.
Jen: 09:47 Do you have any sense as to why that is? Is it because the adults are watching these news cycles and that they’re trying to protect the children from it and so the children aren’t exposed to as much information or what’s your sense on that?
Dr. Fisher: 09:59 I don’t know. I don’t have a strong sense of that. I can tell you that when I’m confronting potential danger, I’m usually more worried about the people I’m with than I am about my own safety. So it may be that sort of a factor, you know, parents love very few people in the world more than their own children and then maybe they just maybe sensitized to that.
Jen: 10:19 Yeah. Okay. And so as we heard about at the beginning of the episode is often parents who will then call for more security at schools, particularly after an incident at another school as sort of prompted their fears. And so I want to spend some time talking about what kinds of security are now in place in schools. So maybe we could walk through some of these and just talk about what they are and what kind of effects they have. So, the first one is the Gun-Free Schools Act that was enacted in 1994 and I think it calls for States to enact laws requiring that a student who brings a firearm or who possesses a firearm at school to be expelled for a period of not less than one year. How effective has that been? What do you know about that particular act?
Dr. Fisher: 11:01 Yeah, that act is credited largely with bringing in sort of this era of zero tolerance discipline into schools. And so it began with, as you mentioned, guns in schools and it quickly expanded to drugs as well. And then schools have followed that approach to extend it to other things such as fighting, even repeated offenses of more minor actions. So, when folks talk about zero tolerance, they sometimes talk about specific policies, like if you bring a gun to school, you’re out. But a lot of researchers are also talking about this culture of zero tolerance where disciplinary strategies are bound up in the use of school security measures that are used to monitor and surveil students. And just sort of this sense that schools, yes are places of education, but also places of control. So critical scholars who look back to the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 largely point to that as legislation that has ushered in that era.
Jen: 12:04 Yeah, and I think on the face of it, it seems like a really valid thing to do. You know, yeah, no kid should have a gun in school. No child should have a knife in a school. Yes, they should be sort of things that are non-negotiable. But I think, 75% of schools now have these policies, but I read in an American Psychological Association report that found there is little evidence that this act is a deterrent firstly for people who are planning to do these kinds of things, they’re going to bring it to school anyway. They don’t increase school safety. They’re disproportionately applied to students of non-dominant cultures. And you hear all the time in the news about, you know, some person who there was a kid who picked up her mom’s lunchbox and her mom had a paring knife in her lunchbox so that she could cut an apple up at her work. And so the child finds it immediately, hands it in and gets kicked out of school. So once you look below the surface, how effective do you think this zero tolerance policies are? Are there instead of intended goal of reducing violence?
Dr. Fisher: 12:58 Well, they’re not effective and I think some of us would even argue that their intention wasn’t as much to prevent violence as it was to exert control. So, from a violence prevention perspective, they have been ineffective. From a control perspective, they’ve been highly effective. As you mentioned, there’s a high degree of disproportionality in who is being excluded from our schools, this largely students of color, students with disabilities. In that sense, this sort of zero tolerance culture has reinforced ideas of what is considered normal. What is the status quo has maintained a lot of those cultural paradigms.
Jen: 13:39 Yeah. Okay. So let’s talk about some of those more control and surveillance types of activities. I think 64% of public schools used cameras and this data is kind of out of date in the 2011-2012 school year. Is that increasing and what trends are you seeing around the use of cameras in schools?
Dr. Fisher: 13:56 Yeah, that’s been to my knowledge, one of the largest increases over the past decade or so to where the vast majority of schools now use security cameras. I assume this is largely driven by sort of the advent of new technology that seems to be happening on a weekly, monthly basis. And cameras are becoming cheaper and cheaper. I just completed a study earlier this year with two of my graduate students where we examined a set of 850 schools that implemented cameras between time one and time two and what time one and time two varied a little bit, but it was all within the 2000. So, within that 850 schools, some implemented cameras, some didn’t. Then we compared, you know, was there a reduction in crime when you implement cameras? Did it make a difference for violent crime, for property crime, for more routine things like a bullying or gang activities in the school? And across outcome after outcome we saw zero effect, zero effect, zero effect.
Jen: 15:01 Wow.
Dr. Fisher: 15:02 Even though cameras are becoming more and more prevalent, statistically we’re not seeing any improvement in crime outcomes, at least in the data that we used.
Jen: 15:11 Okay. So I want to sort of tease that out a little bit. I’m wondering, okay, so maybe there’s this baseline level of crime and then cameras are implemented in the school. Is it possible that some children are deterred from committing crimes while other children are still committing them, but they’re more likely to get caught? And so this sort of, you know, decrease in number but increase in number of people getting caught, are they canceling each other out and having that zero effect or do you think there’s something else going on?
Dr. Fisher: 15:38 Oh, that’s certainly possible. I can’t rule that out. I also wonder and speculate if young people today are so desensitized to being on camera with having one or two cameras on each of our cell phones that we use having so many in public spaces. I wonder if there’s just not the deterrent effect that there may have been in earlier decades.
Jen: 15:59 Oh, interesting. Yeah. It’d be interesting to compare that with an English dataset because you’re on camera everywhere, everywhere you go in England. But that would be really interesting.
Dr. Fisher: 16:09 Fascinating.
Jen: 16:10 Yeah. So, I know that a lot of your researches focused on school security personnel and so there’s a variety of forms these can take. There can be security guards, there can be actual police, there can be what’s called school resource officers, which I think are police who are kind of deputized to the school. Can you talk a little bit about what your researchers found on those?
Dr. Fisher: 16:30 Sure. Yeah, so I think to begin there are maybe some useful working definitions that we’ll give. And I will say that the definitions that I use differ slightly from the ones that other researchers use, which differ slightly from ones that practitioners and people in schools use, which differ slightly from ones that the public uses. So, I’ll sort of define the terms as I’m speaking about them and folks can chime in and tell me I’m wrong afterwards. So, yeah, I see a sort of three types of security personnel. One being security guards who are not part of a police force, they are not sworn officers, they don’t have arrest powers, but they’re there to sort of address behavior issues in school to keep a general sense of order. There’s police officers who are not SROs, who are not School Resource Officers where they do have arrest powers.
Dr. Fisher: 17:23 Typically, will carry a firearm. They’re assigned to a school maybe on a full time, maybe on a part time basis, but they don’t have any sort of special training around working in schools or working with children and youth. Then finally School Resource Officers are a subset of police officers. So it’s another form of school-based law enforcement. But when people talk about SROs, they typically talk about them in a context of folks who have had some sort of training around say, child and adolescent development or understanding the school system or things like that. On the ground, it’s not always the case that they have those sorts of trainings, but when people talk about them as a general idea. So most of the research that I have been involved in over the past two or three years has been with school resource officers.
Dr. Fisher: 18:10 I’ve been partnering with two different school districts, one in a very urban area, one in a rural and suburban area. And I’ve done interviews with around 75 officers. And I’ve looked at some administrative data in the suburban district, talked with a variety of other stakeholders, teachers, students, parents. One of the major themes that we’ve found has been that context really matters in schools. So the context, both in terms of the school context, but also the neighborhood and community really shapes what SROs do, how they understand their jobs and what effects they have. How other folks perceive them.
Jen: 18:49 Okay. And so I know that the incidents of having SROs in schools really increased dramatically after Columbine because the Federal Government made $475 million in grant money available to hire and train SROs despite any lack of empirical evidence of their effectiveness. So, I wonder if we can talk through what your research and the research of others has found about things like links between the use of SROs and other security measures, expulsion and suspension rates, whether they actually do reduce the threat of harm. You know, what’s kind of the general sense of what your research has shown you on these topics?
Dr. Fisher: 19:26 The current body of research is not optimistic about the effects of school resource officers or other school security measures. There have been dozens of studies at this point that have looked at this through one lens or another. And if I can sort of summarize it, the state of the literature suggests that there are null to negative effects with those negative effects being particularly born by low income students and students of color. Because of the nature of research design and what sort of inferences we can draw from these studies, we don’t have any silver bullet study. We don’t have any single study that has proven to us, yes, these are useful. No, they’re not useful. Instead it’s an accumulation of a body of evidence at which point we have to make some qualitative judgments about the strength of the evidence and what is finding. My read on it is that not only does it do these security measures of all different sorts appear to be unhelpful, they appear to be harmful in some settings.
Dr. Fisher: 20:36 And I think that really flies in the face with a lot of public perception where we do have evidence, for example, that school personnel feel safer when they have officers in the school and/or have a variety of security measures. And when I talk to adults, they often are thankful for the police officers in the school or feel safer because there’s cameras or things like this. But most studies are looking at student-based outcomes. And I would argue those are the outcomes that are probably most important to be looking at. And the studies are not super optimistic.
Jen: 21:07 Yeah. I think one that really struck out to me, I can’t remember if it was one of yours or somebody else’s, was the link between SROs and academic outcomes. And there was a negative impact that schools that have SROs have students who come out with worse academic outcomes than those who don’t. And the purpose of adding SRO is not just to reduce crime in schools, you know, we’re not just trying to make schools safer, but we’re trying to make schools safer to create a safe learning environment that enables students’ academic success. That’s kind of the end goal in all of this. The safety is sort of in my environmental consulting world, safety is a midpoint indicator. Whereas the academic success is the end point indicator. That’s the thing you really care about, the end. And so if they’re not helping us to do that, then it seems as though our use of this is kind of misguided.
Dr. Fisher: 21:56 Yeah, that’s right. And then there’s sort of two theories of change around this. So one is that, when we implement police or other security measures or zero tolerance policies or sort of follow through with this type of approach, one theory is that this would deter students from misbehaving or folks from coming from outside the school and doing damage in the school, which in turn would lead to a more orderly environment that is conducive to learning and students will perform better on standardized tests, graduate at higher rates and so forth. The other theory of change is that when these sorts of changes are made to schools around a discipline, policies, police, other security measures, that those changes sensitized students to the potential for danger and they sort of perceive their school as a less safe site than they would have before. You can imagine if all of a sudden one day you have to walk through a metal detector and there’s cameras all over and brand new police officers, you might say, wow, my school is a dangerous place that it needs all this stuff. I never knew that before. And so students, when they internalize that, maybe they’re more likely to act in ways that reinforce that notion where they contribute to that very sense of lack of safety or danger. And then as you explained, that might further go into a sense of disorder and prohibit some of the academic outcomes that we’re looking for.
Jen: 23:20 Yeah, and a couple of other things that stuck out to me as I was reading literature on this, you had recommended a book to me by a Dr. Kupchik who was embedded in a school for a year with the SRO kind of following SRO, seeing what the impact of the SRO’s work was on the school. And he described incidences of interactions between the SRO and the students. And some of them had inappropriate sexual innuendos. He would drive his patrol car into the middle of the outdoor lunch area and just kinda sit there. And this sort of, it seemed to me kind of a silently threatening tone. They couldn’t even sit and eat lunch without having this threat of somebody in a patrol car sitting right next to them. A very inappropriate use of humor around a lesson on speeding. And I think it was, you know, how you can fail a drunk driving test even if you’re sober.
Jen: 24:09 And you know, isn’t that kind of funny and well not really if you’re a student of color and you may have a negative interaction with a police officer anyway and even if you’re not doing anything wrong, that interaction could turn negative. And there was also this idea of SROs creating a really gray area in terms of what’s legally allowed because school administrators are allowed to do things like open up a student’s locker. And so then the SRO can look in and make judgments about whether or not the student could be arrested, whereas they would have needed a warrant to open that locker if the school administrators weren’t present or if this was not on a school. And then maybe the punishment gets escalated to something much more severe than administrators would have given for offenses that can be pretty ambiguous in a school environment. So, I think there’s a lot of factors in play here that maybe when we think about, well yeah, we want our kids to be safer, we’re going to put SROs in schools, that’s not necessarily the case.
Dr. Fisher: 25:04 Yeah, that’s right. When you’re talking about some of these ambiguous situations or unintended consequences, it reminds me of one story on this study that I’ve been working on actually with Aaron Kupchik. And one of the stories we heard from an officer, and it was a point of pride, was that there was a student who had come in day after day and sorta seemed down in the dumps sort of like something was wrong. So the officer reached out in an effort to be helpful and counsel the student in an informal sense. And the student shared that there had been some issues with drug use and sales in their home and they just weren’t feeling great about it. And the SRO decided that they were going to, I can’t recall if they themselves went or called it into their colleagues who worked in the community, but went to the home and arrested the parents of this student who had confided in the officer, which is almost certainly a worse outcome than with the parents have stayed there with the student.
Dr. Fisher: 26:05 And it’s those sort of issues that we keep coming across where SROs, even with the most noble of intentions, view their job through a law enforcement lens primarily. Even when they’re doing mentoring, building relationships, acting as a role model. It’s often with the implicit and sometimes explicit goal of meeting law enforcement ends. We’ve heard officers working with elementary school students who say, yeah, I want to build trust with them now so that when they get older and there’s crimes happen in the community, they’ll feel comfortable talking to the police about it. So even as they’re interacting with, I don’t know, seven, eight year olds, they’re doing it with the goal of solving crimes in the future, which I can’t say is a bad thing necessarily. Like it’s good to prevent crime, but I don’t know that educational settings are the right place for that all to be happening.
Jen: 27:00 Yeah. And just before we leave this behind, I want to make the point also that SROs were present at three out of the four of the most deadly school shootings in the US since 1999 and shootings are carried at Virginia Tech, even though the campus had a full police force. So this presence of SROs is not the huge deterrent that people think that it is I think, you know, people will think, oh, while there’s police there, the children are safer, but anyone who’s going to do this anyway is going to do it whether there’s an SRO there or not. And SROs have not been sort of the magic pill to preventing shootings in the first place or necessarily even stopping them faster than the police could stop them if the police were responding from off campus.
Dr. Fisher: 27:40 Yeah, that’s right. And taking sort of the perspective of an advocate of SROs one might say that well they weren’t trained properly or they didn’t behave in the way they were trained or something went wrong there, which may all be true. But in my eyes, if this model of SROs or police in schools, if it only is gonna work, if we have to do it just right then and there might be something about the model that isn’t quite what we want.
Jen: 28:07 Yes, that’s great. Okay. All right. So let’s get to the topic that I know a lot of parents want to hear about. I want to talk about lockdown drills. I know this is not your area of expertise and frankly it’s not anyone’s area of expertise. The research literature on this area is extremely thin. So I would like to summarize what I’ve found and then sort of get your educated commentary on it from a perspective of, you know, understanding that this is not your core area. So I did find one paper that specifically discussed the effectiveness of training kindergarten students to stop what they were doing and move quickly and quietly to a bathroom at the back of their classroom. In this kind of drill environment, they had to sit quietly for five minutes and then after seven training sessions, they were moderately successful in producing only a few very quiet noises during the assessment.
Jen: 28:52 So this is sort of, is it possible to even train students to do this kind of thing properly? A very young children. But the training happened 10 minutes before the assessment and I would think that lockdowns would probably last a lot longer than five minutes on average. And most of the students weren’t told anything why about why they’re in a lockdown in the first place. So it was just kind of, okay, children, now we’re going to do this thing where we’re going to go to the back of the classroom. It wasn’t, you know, the teacher realized there’s something going on was in an absolute panic. And so this sort of a scared feeling was probably completely absent from this procedure. So yes, it is possible to train students to do this. But that test of doing it was not very realistic. Another set of researchers noticed that in high school or university environments, people who resisted the shooter were much less likely to get shot than people who just sat and waited and then played dead when the shooter entered.
Jen: 29:43 And so these researchers tried to assess whether lockdowns were more or less effective than Multi-Option paradigms, which is where people can evacuate, barricade doors and actively resist the shooter. And they do this by having an actual sort of “shooter armed with a really realistic looking gun that shoots plastic pellets”. But that study was conducted by employees from the consulting firm that sells training on this method. And there were only adults involved. Half of them were law enforcement officers who had training on this kind of thing. And then they did the lockdown only drill first. And then the same people, once they’d had that practice with the lockdown only drill, had some more training on how to do the Multi-Option method. And then they did the Multi-Option test. And low and behold, these now experienced adults who didn’t have to take responsibility for 30 young, terrified children and who had practiced a simulation already had a result where the Multi-Option paradigm resulted in fewer people shot.
Jen: 30:40 And so the researchers sort of came out with a statement saying, the Multi-Option paradigm is clearly superior. And to me it seemed like a bit of a false dichotomy to contrast these Multi-Option protocols with just playing dead, which is what the researchers did. They said, you know, if you’re going to lie there in the room, this is not a safe thing to do because what we actually want to know is whether Multi-Option protocols are more effective than locking the door and waiting quietly, not just lying and sort of playing dead in an unlocked room. And so almost final on this friend, Kenneth Trump, who now needs to append his name with no relation every time he says it, is the president of the consulting firm called the National School Safety and Security Services. He’s an outspoken critic of Multi-Option protocols for a lot of the reasons I’ve already stated.
Jen: 31:24 In addition to statistics from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School showing more deaths and injuries on the third floor where people tried to self-evacuate than on the second floor where students followed a traditional lockdown protocol, another study commented that drills of any kind alleviate liability by demonstrating to parents that the school is trying to focus on preventive measures. But that “no evidence supports the effectiveness of these strategies in preventing school violence”. And apparently the Douglas High School shooter actually used what he learned when he went through school shooting drills himself to inflect maximum harm on the student body there. Okay. So that’s kind of what I’ve found in the literature. It doesn’t help us very much in understanding what we really want to know. But ultimately I have kind of two questions with sort of some subtopics we can go through on this. Firstly, what do you think is the most effective way to prepare teachers and students for an active shooter scenario?
Dr. Fisher: 32:18 Yeah, effectiveness in the academic world is a term that carries a lot of baggage and it sort of assumes that there’s been evaluations and research. And to your point that there hasn’t been that around active shooters and for a variety of reasons. One, it’s hard to study real incidents because they’re so rare and almost entirely unpredictable to scenarios or manufactured incidents involve a degree of realism or lack of realism or role play that doesn’t quite mimic what a real situation would be like as you pointed out. And so I have to throw my hands up in there. I don’t know that one technique is better. I can sit through a conversation with somebody who evangelizes the Multi-Option responses and be like, yeah, that sounds great. And then I can hear your critic like Trump, no relation to the president and you say, no, a lockdown is better.
Dr. Fisher: 33:16 I could say, yeah, that sounds good to me too. There’s just not the evidence out there for one or the other or other options that maybe we haven’t thought of. I do think it’s much more useful to focus on prevention rather than sort of mitigation. Although if an active shooter does come to your school, you certainly want to mitigate the damage as much as possible. But we do have a lot of research around issues like school climate.
Jen: 33:42 Oh, you’re skipping ahead.
Dr. Fisher: 33:44 But these sorts of proactive upstream approaches are things that appear to be quite promising.
Jen: 33:52 Yeah. Okay. So we will get to those I promise. And just sort of before we leave the, is it effective? I think that the Multi-Options researchers are really setting up this false dichotomy when they’re comparing their Multi-Option scenario where you don’t do anything at all and their proponents of this say that lockdowns don’t make teachers “feel safe” because I guess you just don’t feel as safe when you’re not doing anything, compared to when you are actively trying to do something. But whether the thing you’re trying to do is effective is lost in it entirely. So the proponents of the lockdown say that a locked door has never been breached in an active shooter situation. So it does seem as though that is an effective way of preparing people whether or not it makes them feel safe. Of course you’re not going to feel safe sitting there waiting, but you may ultimately be safer than trying to jump out of a third floor window and if you want to comment on that before we move on.
Dr. Fisher: 34:47 Yeah, I will say in one of these two research projects I’ve been working on, we did get some data from teachers and a bit from students about their experiences doing these active shooter drills and it wasn’t a question that we asked systematically, so it was just if somebody happened to mention it in our interviews and focus groups, but we heard quite the spectrum of responses among the few people who talked about it. So we heard some individuals say that going through these trainings made them feel safer because they hear about all these shootings in the news and they’re fearful that one could happen in their school. And so knowing the right thing to do and best way to be prepared makes them feel safer. We hear other people, I had somebody break down in tears as they were talking to me about it, where they were describing going through one of these drills and imagining it so intensely and imagining their students and they love going through the situation and it was just so painful and so stressful that they could hardly handle going through it. And you see that crop up in the news. A few weeks ago I saw a story in Indiana about teachers being actually shot by some sort of fake guns during their drills and coming away with injuries and just some really traumatizing things. And I wonder if we’re sensitizing folks to a danger that is, I can’t say isn’t there, but is highly unlikely.
Jen: 36:12 Yeah. Compared to something like a lightning strike for example. And I think that’s the flip side of that question is the potential harm that students, and we’ve talked about teachers but students as well could experience from doing these drills and do the benefits outweigh the harms?
Dr. Fisher: 36:27 Yeah. I mean that’s the question. If you were to make me choose in a school whether or not to have them, I probably wouldn’t want them, but I could probably be convinced and certainly wouldn’t see fault with people who will make the other choice. I think it may be particularly useful to just get input from people instead of making it an administrative decision to like talk to your students, talk to your parents. Is this something that will alleviate fears or stoke them?
Jen: 36:57 Yeah, absolutely. And that step I think too often is completely missing and I think schools need to really think about is an armed drill the thing that is going to help us be most prepared. And if so, do people have the chance to opt out of it? Because the literature on this from the National Association of School Psychologists as well as the National Association of School Resource Officers, they worked together to publish guidelines and said that participation should never be mandated for staff or students. And if it’s not mandated, that means it can’t be a surprise. And a lot of these drills are can just conducted without any announcement at all for maximum realism and then they ended up having a really detrimental impact on children and teachers. Just absolutely feeling terrified by these.
Jen: 37:43 Do you want to say anything else about that?
Dr. Fisher: 37:45 No, it sounds like you’re more of an expert on this than I am.
Jen: 37:49 I’m just frustrated by the state of the research.
Dr. Fisher: 37:53 Yeah, yeah. Understandably so.
Jen: 37:55 Okay, so let’s move on to what is effective. There was some talk in the literature on teaching people to spot leakage. Can you tell us what leakage is and how we can use that to help protect ourselves and our students?
Dr. Fisher: 38:08 Yeah, so the person whose research I’m most familiar with on this is Eric Madfis at University of Washington Tacoma, who’s done some work around school shootings that didn’t happen, averted school shootings and finds out that far and away the best way that school shootings have been averted is somebody told an adult and oftentimes it is because the potential perpetrator made mention of their plans to their peers and the peers had a trusting and supportive relationship with at least one adult in this school who they were comfortable telling. Sometimes that was a school resource officer, but more often it was a teacher or staff member. And so having those sorts of relationships in schools, maybe a particularly effective thing for preventing school shootings, particularly those where it’s a student who’s told somebody or made hints about what they’re gonna do. But we also know that it has positive impacts on a lot of other areas or students’ lives. And I think that really ought to be a priority that every student in every school is made to feel like they have a strong and supportive relationship with at least one adult in the school building.
Jen: 39:22 Yeah. And I think that’s a sort of a key area that I wanted to head towards as we move forward. And you sort of hinted at it already that students who attend schools that are organized in sort of a more communal nature rather than a very sort of autocratic, these are the rules that you’re going to do, what I do because I say so, which frankly is how I think most schools are organized, but schools where students feel like they have a say in what goes on in the school and how rules are made and things like that have really stronger bonds to the school and lower rates of misbehavior and it seems like this relationship between students themselves and also between students and teachers, students and administrators is really key to a lot of these issues. Do you see it the same way?
Dr. Fisher: 40:07 Yeah, I do and I work in the Department of Criminal Justice and one of the sort of core theories in criminology is Social Bond Theory. This is especially relevant for young folks and the idea is that when you establish bonds with people or with institutions and you feel like part of, we’ll say a school for example, and the norms of the school sort of become internalized as your norms and the things that your teachers and peers care about are the things that you also care about. Breaking those bonds by acting out in some sort of way in a violent or criminal way is a hard thing for students to do because they want to maintain those relationships, they want to maintain that connection to the social order. And so that sort of acts as a glue for students who might otherwise act violently. And that studies that have provided evidence supporting this theory for decades now showing that these social bonds are a really important mechanism for preventing crime and misbehavior, especially in school settings.
Jen: 41:08 Yeah. And so we already mentioned earlier when we talked about SROs that students who attend schools with security personnel often have poor relationships with their teachers. And we talked a little bit about that. I think your research also looked at the bonds between the teachers and the students in school and the prevalence of metal detectors and security cameras as well. And there were some unclear effects there. Can you tell us what happened with that?
Dr. Fisher: 41:30 Yeah, sure. So I’ll give a little bit background for it. There’s an ethnography from the 1990s by John Devine called Maximum Security where he studies police in New York City schools and the effects that they have on the sort of the school culture there. And one of the interesting findings to me from that book is the finding that teachers and the police sort of had shared responsibility for students, but there was a clear division in how that responsibility was allocated. The teachers were very much responsible for the academic and the learning and the mindsight of the students, whereas the police were in charge of the behavior and the bodies of the students. So rather than having this sort of unified relationship with teachers where there to both provide support and structure for learning and behavior, the teachers just sort of were part of the learning and they sort of outsource the rest of any discipline issues or behavior issues to the police.
Dr. Fisher: 42:29 So I wanted to investigate that phenomenon through the context of not just police in schools but also other forms of security measures. So we did look at three things. We looked at metal detectors, security cameras and security personnel, and we saw how the presence of those things was associated with a stronger or weaker aspects of different types of measures of school climate. So relationships with teachers, for example, was an area where we found results fairly consistent with what Devine found in his ethnography that that schools that had a security personnel, students in those schools reported poor relationships with their teachers than in schools without potentially indicating that there was this sort of division of responsibility over domains of students’ lives and this outsourcing of discipline. We don’t have sort of the rich qualitative data that defined it, but kind of based on that theory found some supporting evidence.
Jen: 43:32 Okay. And I think sort of, again, we’re looking at a bit of a midpoint indicator here and then going towards the end point indicator looking at school climate and feelings of safety because ultimately it seems to be that feeling of safety that is then leading to the better academic outcomes. And I think one of your studies found some unclear results on that as well. And I was kind of surprised by that because I know at least one of the researcher has found that “strong positive relationships contributed to higher levels of school safety and student academic achievement”. So can you talk about what you found related to feelings of safety at school and school climate?
Dr. Fisher: 44:10 Sure. So the study that I’m thinking of looked at the relationship between students who experienced victimization and I’m sorry, so perceptions of something called authoritative school climate, which is a sort of this combination of having strong and supportive relationships with adults in the school, but also a sense of fair and consistent discipline. So this idea of having both structure and support there. And we look to see if that was related to changes in students’ perceptions of safety and/or fear at school, and whether any of those changes could be explained by changes in their exposure to violence and victimization. So the idea here is that we start off with the idea of authoritative school climate. We see if higher levels of that reduces violence in schools. And then if that in turn reduces students’ levels of fear.
Dr. Fisher: 45:12 And our study found essentially just that when schools have this authoritative school climate where they feel they have strong and supportive relationships with adults in the school and they also feel that discipline is fair and consistently enforced, those schools also have lower levels of victimization, which in turn is showing an increased level of perceived safety at school. And we didn’t ultimately link those feelings of safety to academic outcomes. But other studies have shown that students who are more afraid do poor on standardized tests, for example. So, you know, I think feeling safe is an important in and out of itself, but other folks have shown that it links to more measurable things as well that State Department of Education, for example, care about
Jen: 46:03 Yeah. And I just want to briefly acknowledge the thought of things are coming up for me as you’re talking through that about the kinds of students who are most likely to be impacted by these policies. And you mentioned, you know, the rules being fairly applied and we did an episode a few episodes back on White Privilege in Schools and talked through things like, you know, teachers and administrators have biases about what kinds of behavior are appropriate for children. And these are usually based on white children’s behavior. A prison liked school environments kind of habituate these lower income and minority use to treatment that a lot of them are going to experience in prison. The policies that are put in place in schools are usually not uniformly applied. There’s plenty of incidences where things like, you know, you may not wear your hood up in school is a rule that will get maybe a side long look for a white student.
Jen: 46:53 For a black student, that student would be sent to detention or a suspension and it sort of cascades on from there. And these policies sort of have this effect of habituating them to the kinds of treatment they’re going to receive as adults. And then once that he kind of really brought this into focus for me it said zero tolerance policies, increased standardized test scores and reduce truancy rates by removing problematic students from the pool of students for whom schools are held accountable. And to me that just, I mean it’s kind of mind boggling that, yeah, if you take these students who are not performing well academically because they don’t feel safe in school, out of the pool, then everybody else looks better and your school looks better. And what do you think about that?
Dr. Fisher: 47:34 Yeah, it is very frustrating. Yeah. In an era under no child left behind with high stakes, that’s the thing that is especially came into focus where people were essentially gaming the system in order to get more government funds by removing students. And as you mentioned, it wasn’t your wealthy white students, it was students of color, students with disabilities. And of course the intersection of those in which is problematic in a lot of ways. It does reinforce, I completely agree with what you’re saying about socializing students into what they’re expecting in adulthood. A colleague, Paul Hirschfield wrote a sort of seminal paper in the field called Preparing for Prison, which essentially outlines the ways that schools socialize, particularly the students of color, low income students to be ready to be prisoners not to be sort of functioning independent, free thinking members of society, but to fall in line, to behave, to be controlled. And that’s very problematic.
Jen: 48:33 Yeah. Okay. So I’d like to try and end on a more positive note here.
Dr. Fisher: 48:39 Please.
Jen: 48:40 I was looking at restorative justice and the idea that we could use that as a tool to help students particularly to kind of find the root of their problems and understand what is the root of those problems and find solutions to those things. And I think firstly, as I was reading the literature on it, it seemed as though there are a lot of ways that it can go awry and that the way, yes, it’s great in principle, but when it’s actually applied in basically a lecture format by the teacher or the administrator. And this is what you need to do and this is why you can’t overreact when something happens. And it seems as though the application of the restorative justice is problematic. And then secondly, there is no question about the framework that these rules exist within.
Jen: 49:22 If you’re having restorative justice around whether or not you can wear a hoodie up, there’s no discussion over whether wearing hoodie ups should even be a rule or not. The framework that the school has set is sort of just accepted as these are the rules and this is how it’s going to be. Can you talk about whether you’ve seen incidences of sort of restorative justice used well or maybe other tools that you’ve seen that are really share a lot of promise in improving school climate, improving academic outcomes and improving safety for students as well?
Dr. Fisher: 49:52 Yeah, I think restorative justice is a really important one to be talking about right now. One, it’s a little bit buzzwordy. People are talking about it a lot and using it and I do think for a good reason it shows conceptual promise and the bit of High Quality Empirical literature that’s come out on it indicates some promising trends. The couple of pitfalls that I hear about are one, not sort of fully implementing it. So sort of the hallmark example of restorative practices in school that folks tend to talk about is the restorative circle, which is essentially a response to a student misbehavior where the student who committed the offending behavior as well as any victims as well as sort of the teacher in school leadership are all brought into a circle and are able to share their perspectives about the wrong that occurred and the harm that was done and find ways to repair that.
Dr. Fisher: 50:47 That’s great. I think that’s probably a better thing to do than suspending students, but it’s only sort of a part of restorative practices as a whole. And as you mentioned it, if that’s all that schools are doing, it risks perpetuating these unjust policies where maybe they’re being inconsistently enforced or maybe the policy like having your hood on is sort of unjust in the first place. So when I’ve heard about this going well incorporates a broader way of communicating and relating to each other within students, within teachers and in between the two groups as well as the whole school community and finding a way to engage in positive communication and think about nonviolence as sort of a broader thing than only in response to things that are considered misbehavior or non-normative. I also have seen different companies or organizations crop up that essentially are trying to be sort of an off the shelf version of a restorative justice for the low price of whatever. You can have restorative justice in your schools and that’s pretty antithetical to the core of restorative practices, which are supposed to be a very much community driven and based on sort of local understandings and from a variety of stakeholders. So to my knowledge and my understanding when this is done best, it’s a very much locally driven thing that is sort of thoughtfully engaged and wholly committed to.
Jen: 52:19 Yeah. And acknowledges that different people have different communication styles and if you’re taking this out of the box thing, which was probably developed by white people and applying it in a school of people of nondominant cultures who may communicate in a very different way, you know, the teachers might say, well you need to be calm to restorative justice and communicate with us in in this very prescribed way and the student might be legitimately angry about something that’s happened and not able to act in the right way to do this, you know, white view of what restorative justice looks like. So yeah, I think the locally appropriate implementation of this is really critical. I wonder if you could leave us, is there some advice that you would give to parents who are thinking through this and maybe just kind of having a, well, what can I do kind of moment while listening to this?
Dr. Fisher: 53:06 Yeah. I think an element in this whole conversation that we mentioned before but is largely ignored in district after district and school after school is just giving students a meaningful seat at the table and allowing them a voice and all of these decisions, policies and practices.
Dr. Fisher: 53:27 Students may not have as much experience as adults. They probably don’t know the academic literature as well, but they’re the ones who are living this and are ultimately the ones who are most vulnerable and most impacted. And I just think centering student voices to a higher degree is likely to be a really beneficial step for a variety of outcomes that we want to see.
Jen: 53:47 Yeah. I couldn’t agree more and not just in discipline related areas and safety-related areas, but in all aspects of education. I think privileging student voices is something that sorely needs to happen and is really lacking in our education system today.
Dr. Fisher: 54:01 Yes. Yup.
Jen: 54:02 Well thank you so much for helping us understand more about this and hopefully maybe be a little less afraid of it, but also give us some tools that we can use to talk with people at our schools, talk with the teachers and the administrators. If you’re really inspired, talk with school boards and other people who make decisions about how schools are run about what you’ve learned. There’s all the references for the show that you can use yourself as you’re making your case to people about this. If you want to change things can be found at https://yourparentingmojo.com/schoolsafety/. Thank you so much, Dr. Fisher for your time.
Dr. Fisher: 54:30 Thank you. It was lovely talking.

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About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership

She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com

And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school

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