Security Measures at Schools:
Mental Health Considerations
These days, every school is confronted with the dilemma of how to provide security measures and crisis preparation without too much cost to a positive school climate and to the mental health of students.
One facet of this dilemma is reflected in the following request sent to the Center:
" I am the coordinator of all crisis work in our school district. As part of this responsibility I am charged with making sure that all of our school continue to practice the districts crisis plans and procedures during our various and state required drills. We have a number of drills during our school year that consist but are not limited to:lock-down, lock-out, severe weather, fire, emergency evacuation etc. We have been doing both announced and unannounced drills to prepare students and staff in the event a crisis occurs. I am seeking information, research and advice on psychological effect, if any, these drills have on children and adolescents."
It's a Dilemma
In responding to such an inquiry, it must be recognized that this as a true dilemma (i.e., there is no win-win answer, only strategies to balance costs and benefits).
And, it is also noteworthy that much more attention has been paid to the school safety and security side of the matter than to minimizing the negative consequences of this emphasis. Moreover, much of what is most observable in school security are physical changes to increase safety (e.g., metal detectors, uniformed security officers, crisis response drills).
For a quick look at some of this, see the Center's online Introductory Packet entitled Violence Prevention and Safe Schools -- http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/violence/violence.pdf
and the Online Clearinghouse Quick Find on the topic http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/qf/p2108_03.htm
Too Little Research
For various reasons, there has been little research on the effectiveness and possible unintended negative effects on students and on school climate.
The dearth of research, of course, is no excuse for not considering matters such as the psychological effects of multiple emergency drills. Indeed, it is essential to reflect on such questions as:
- Do the frequent drills set a tone in the school of heightened concern about personal safety for some students? Raise anxiety?
- Do frequent drills produce complacency on the part of some staff and students?
- Is there resentment on the part of the teaching staff because of the loss of time for instruction?
- Does the "excitement" of a drill disinhibit some students and result in deviant behaviors?
- Do some student view drills as an opportunity for disrupting the school day and thus initiate false fire alarms, hoax phone calls regarding bombs, etc.?
Our efforts to further explore these matters led Center staff to the available literature and to elicit information and comments from colleagues across the country. Here is a sample of what we have garnered to date. (Please send along things you think should be added.)
- From: The Future of Children, Volume 12, Number 2, Mitigating Gun Violence by James Gabarino, et al. http://www.futureofchildren.org/usr_doc/tfoc_12-2f.pdf
Schools' Attempts to Prevent Gun Violence
Schools face the difficult task of preparing for the possibility of school violence without creating a climate of fear. Nonetheless, prevention may be the best alternative to inaction or hysteria. . . . However, some school efforts to prevent gun violence on campus may foster more fear rather than a sense of security. Metal detectors, bars on windows, and surveillance cameras may make students feel unsafe or that they are not trusted. Similarly, emergency drills may send the message to expect a shooting, creating a climate of suspicion and anxiety among students and faculty.
- School Security, Student Fear and School Climate: Results From a National Study. Paper by Shannon Phaneuf presented at the 2005 annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Toronto.
Paper Abstract: Although millions of dollars are spent each year on improving school security, not much has been done to evaluate the efficacy of these strategies in terms of their ability to reduce violence or student fear. Critics of security and surveillance practices in schools argue that the potential negative consequences stemming from the use of these devices may outweigh their benefits. Of particular concern is the possible negative influence security measures may have on the level of school disorder, student fear, the school's climate and the level of student bonding. This presentation summarizes the preliminary results of a multi-level analysis of the effect of school security measures on student fear, school climate, and student bonding. Using a sample of 276 secondary schools taken from the National Study of Delinquency Prevention in Schools, hierarchical linear modeling techniques will investigate the relationships among individual- and school-level variables while controlling for covariates. This presentation will provide information on the study rationale, research questions and hypotheses, the measures used, sample characteristics and response rates, descriptive statistics for study variables, and proposed study analyses.
- From a school security consultant:
"I'm not aware of any research on the psychological effect of crisis drills. There's always a risk for students who suffer from PTSD I suppose, so it wouldn't hurt to touch base with school counseling staff to see if there's anyone who will deserve special handling or should be given an opportunity to opt out. Having said that, I think doing drills regularly is a good idea, but I think they should be done in a manner that does not traumatize the students or staff involved -- which means taking into account age, psychological status, disabilities, etc. Students should be clearly informed about what's happening, and that the purpose is to keep the school as safe a place as possible. If your school is a generally safe place, confirm this. Directly state: we don't think these kinds of events are likely to ever occur here, AND we think it's a good idea to be prepared -- just in case. If successful, the end result should be that students feel safer, rather than more frightened. In-house before and after surveys could be helpful in measuring this."
Excerpts from an article in the Columbia News Service
from Terrorism to Tornadoes, Schools Prepare for the Worst by Megan O'Neill http://jscms.jrn.columbia.edu/cns/2006-02-14/oneill-schooldrills/
When Melissa Bear's fifth graders hear "shelter-in-place" repeated over the loudspeaker of their classroom in Hollisield Station Elementary, in Ellicott City, Md., they know exactly what to do. They've practiced shelter-in-place, otherwise known as the intruder drill, twice already this year.
As Bear locks the classroom doors and windows, the students sit quietly at their desks in one of four drills the class has on regular rotation. The others are the standard fire drill, the modified lockdown and duck, cover and hold on - each one designed to prepare for different natural or man-made disasters.
School safety drills date back to the days of the Cold War and the threat of a nuclear attack. But in the wake of incidents like the 1999 Columbine School shooting and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a new brand of drills has been developed to protect students from dangers without and within their buildings. Students are preparing for everything from tornadoes and earthquakes to chemical spills and terrorist attacks.
As the list of threats grows--California's Sonoma County school district lists 16 potential threats--ensuring facility security while fostering a warm and nurturing learning environment has become a delicate balancing act.
"Are we frightening our children?" asked Dr. Ted Feinberg, the assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists. "It's certainly a question I get asked with some frequency."
To address this concern, the Department of Homeland Security in collaboration with the Ad Agency and Scholastic Inc. launched the Ready Kids program on Feb. 2 to help parents and teachers address emergency-preparedness issues with students in age-appropriate ways.
"A lot of students are already alarmed," Ron Stephens, the director of the National School Safety Center (NSSC) in Westlake Village, Calif., said of student anxiety over emergency drills. "But there is a sense of release when they are prepared to deal with a crisis." ...
While some educators believe that preparation yields peace of mind, others shy away from adopting the new drills. Kevan Webb, the principal of Fredericksburg Middle School in Fredericksburg, Texas, has a monthly fire drill and tornado drills once or twice a year. But he doesn't do the intruder drill. "Kids feel enough anxiety," Webb said, "without practicing that someone is going to come in and terrorize them."
But since Sept. 11, terrorism has been infused into school safety concerns. The NSSC, for example, defines schoolyard bullying as a kind of terrorism. The group adopted Homeland Security recommendations for schools to "be vigilant, take sensible precautions and remain productive."
Craig Zachlod, the director of school safety for the Mendocino County school district in California, said the focus in school emergency drills has clearly shifted with the priorities in Washington.
"One of the big arguments in the school safety debate," Zachlod said, "is that when the current administration came into office, the emphasis shifted from natural disasters to terrorism. While some of us may be affected by terrorism, it is more likely that a natural disaster will hit one of our communities." ...
For Bear's fifth graders, drills are routine now. But when John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized the Washington area with sniper attacks in 2002, the school used the modified lockdown for real for two weeks.
"At the time, they were a little scared," Bear said, "and there was a lot of anxiety right afterward. But now, the kids aren't even startled by [the drill] anymore."
- From a national school safety center
Actually, the only formal study specific to this issue that I have seen came out this past September in School Psychology Review [Vol. 36 No. 3, pg 501-508 – by Elizabeth J. Zhe & Amanda B. Nickerson]. The study found that when drills are implemented according to best practices, short-term knowledge and skill may be increased without creating anxiety or altering perceived safety.
- Effects of an intruder crisis drill on children's knowledge, anxiety, and perceptions of school safety
Journal Abstract. In response to calls to evaluate the effectiveness of school crisis drills, this study examined the effects of children's crisis drill participation on their knowledge, skills, state anxiety, and perceptions of school safety. Using a between-subjects, post-test only design, 74 students in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades participated in an intervention (training session plus intruder drill) or a placebo control condition and completed measures about knowledge of drill procedures, state anxiety, and perceptions of safety. The intervention group attained higher post-test scores of knowledge; however, there were no group differences in state anxiety or perceptions of school safety. Observations indicated the intervention group acquired the skill of safe relocation during the drill. Findings suggest that drills implemented according to best practice may have the potential to increase short-term knowledge and skill acquisition without subsequently altering anxiety or perceived safety.
[Address correspondence regarding the article to Amanda B. Nickerson, Division of School Psychology, University at Albany, State University of New York, 1400 Washington Avenue, Education 232, Albany, NY 12222; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ]
- From a researcher:
I think it is great that the person is looking for research on this topic. Unfortunately, there is very little out there. What we do know is that drills are a highly recommended practice to increase skill in what to do in the case of a real emergency. There is some research that lends support to the idea that children can be taught skills and knowledge in terms of fire safety. In terms of psychological effects, ...although there has been much speculation that these drills may make children feel less safe, in our research we found no differences between children who participated in the drill and those that took part in a placebo control condition in terms of state anxiety or perceptions of school safety. The caution to this finding is that the drill was conducted in accordance with "best practices," so there were no dramatic props (e.g. guns, fake blood) and the children were informed that it was a drill.
I am very interested in the topic of what we are doing in schools to prevent and reduce violence (including how effective these approaches are and their influence on school climate). In Mayer & Leone (see reference below) data from national surveys were analyzed to identify the extent to which certain practices influenced crime and disruption. As you know, these issues are very tricky to research and understand. I was a bit disappointed in the findings of my research, as the bottom line seemed to be that demographic variables have a strong influence on crime and disruption and the strategies in place in schools seem to do very little to impact this, although some strategies appear to lead to even more crime and disruption (these tend to be the more punitive and security-oriented ones). Here is the reference for Mayer's work:
Mayer, M. J., & Leone, P. E. (1999). A structural analysis of school violence and disruption: Implications for creating safer schools. Education and Treatment of Children, 22, 333-356.
I think there is much further work to be done on the issue of how what we do impacts school climate.
- From a national center for school crisis:
This is an important issue, but I am not aware of any research to date that has looked at the psychological impact of exercises and drills on students and staff. Nonetheless, we feel that this is something that needs to be handled with sensitive preparation and we have certainly seen instances when a failure to do so has resulted in clear emotional distress for participants. The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement developed a "script" to help schools prepare students for a lockdown drill.
- From the Task Force on Community Preventive Services "A Recommendation to Reduce Rates of Violence Among School-Aged Children and Youth by Means of Universal School-Based Violence Prevention Programs"in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 33, Issue 2, Supplement 1 pp. A1-A6, S81-S146 (August 2007).
"...we found an average 15% reduction of violence among the school-based programs reviewed, which has the potential to contribute large societal benefits. In addition, benefits are likely to extend beyond violent outcomes per se to the improvement of other behaviors and school performance both for directly affected children themselves and their classmates. Thus, schools and their communities stand to benefit in multiple ways from these universal programs..."
- Excerpt from a Commentary entitled "A Major Step Forward in Violence Prevention" (2007) by Deborah Prothrow-Stith in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine 33, Issue 2, Supplement 1, pages A1-A6, S81-S146
"...we must continue to address a current public opinion conundrum. When the citizenry calls for violence prevention, joined by their elected officials, the demand is for more policing. Not only is the efficacy of school-based programs still much debated, but, such efforts are considered "long-term" strategies that do not help in a crisis.... Ironically, law enforcement, incarceration, and school-based punishments are not held to the same evaluation standard as universal school-based programs. What is the evidence that suspending a student helps to change his or her behavior? What are the alternatives? Are they more or less effective? What does incarcerating a juvenile offender for 5 years do? Does it improve his or her behavior? The challenges to our current practices must continue. Just as the dedicated school-based violence prevention practitioners persisted with efforts to create and implement programs, we must continue to take the steps to have punitive strategies evaluated. The public's demand for solutions to the problem of violence in America often generates questions for police chiefs and not commissioners of public health. School-based violence prevention practitioners from across the country are now able to provide evidence for implementing the anger-management, conflict-resolution, peace-building work in elementary, middle, and high schools. ..."
- From a National School Safety Center
It has been my experience that adults, more so than kids, tend to be caught up on the issue of whether security measures and drills such as lockdowns create fear, panic, or anxiety among students. The reality is that today's children and youth are growing up in a world where security has been a part of their everyday lives. While adults get stuck in rhetoric and theory on the presence of security and preparedness measures in schools, overall kids are accepting of reasonable, balanced, and well-communicated risk reduction security measures, drills, and related strategies.
Security measures such as cameras, security and police officers, patrol cars in parking lots, and other measures are in almost every shopping center, mall, grocery store, discount store, athletic and concert arena, and other public places. In fact, in our society, if a person is a victim of crime in these places, the victims frequently pursue civil litigation for the lack of security and/or for negligent security. Yet some theorists state or imply that schools are somehow different than these other public places, and that a lower standard of basic security measures should apply in our schools.
Even at fast food restaurants we enter and exit through a limited number of open doors, employees greet us upon arrival, and cameras are in our faces at the drive-through windows. Do we need research studies to determine if these measures negatively effect us as we purchase our salads, hamburgers, or fries for lunch? For years, we have protected hamburger better than our children and teachers, and we still seem to believe that having some security measures in our schools is somehow Draconian.
I think some research on the effects of security and crisis preparedness measures in schools is a good idea. I believe that if objectively designed and implemented, with some input from professionals who actually understand what school security is about, the findings will be similar to several referenced to date that show there is not the negative impact that some theorists believe may exist. At the same time, I do not believe we need to waste millions of tax dollars on research studies when common sense applies. After terrorist attacks upon our country, we did not wait 10 years for research studies before we decided to improve some basic tenets of homeland security. Nor should we do so for school security.
Not until the past decade have we began reducing the number of wide open doors at schools, training staff on greetings and challenging strangers, better monitoring common areas and isolated locations in our buildings, forging more meaningful relationships and partnerships between schools and law enforcement, training staff on recognizing early warning signs of violence, developing threat assessment protocols and training staff, developing and testing preparedness plans, and taking other reasonable measures. Yet "Security" continues to far too often misrepresented as physical measures such cameras and metal detectors. I think before we do anything else, we need to get a common understanding that "security" means more than having one or two pieces of equipment.
Sadly, many in the worlds of academia, the profession of education, the reporting world of the media, and elsewhere fail to understand that "school security" is as much, if not more, about crime prevention awareness and training, proactive security-related policies and procedures, and nudging people out of an "Ostrich-Syndrome" mentality that has historically created a false sense of security in our nation's schools, than it is about physical security measures such as cameras or metal detectors alone. Any competent, experienced school security professional will tell you that the first and best of line of defense is always a well-trained, highly-alert staff and student body.
One of the most frustrating things in my 25 years in the school security field is to watch professionals continually frame this issue as one of security "or" prevention? Why can we not have balanced security "and" prevention? A student who is assaulted in the back hallway of her school will not benefit much from the prevention program offered in her classroom or her scheduled counseling office session with the school psychologist (if she makes it there) after being assaulted. We must take steps to create a secure environment in order for the many other wonderful prevention, intervention, and education services to be safely and effectively delivered.
A comprehensive school safety program includes a balanced approach including prevention and intervention strategies, strong mental health programs, school climate and discipline strategies, reasonable physical security measures, emergency and crisis preparedness plans, professional development training for staff, student involvement and ownership, and partnerships with public safety officials, parents, mental health and social service agencies, and others in the broader school community. Any one of these strategies standing alone, or for that matter multiple of these strategies without the others, will not provide the best model for safer schools. The "either - or" mentality in approaching school safety must change in the minds of our adult professionals studying and practicing in this arena before we can really make in progress on school safety.
School Violence and Disruption Revisited:Equity and Safety in the School House
Matthew J. Mayer and Peter E. Leone
Focus on Exceptional Children, 40(1) 2007
"...Managing the Physical Environment of the School
... much attention has been directed to creating safer school premises, using environmental-, equipment-, and personnel-based measures. But effectiveness research on such school security measures is extremely limited. Sandia National Labs engaged in research on technology-based school security measures (Green, 1999), issuing a report, The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools. That document, however, did not include discussion of the research methodology, and it remains unclear how the authors arrived at the reported findings.
Research by Ginsberg and Loffredo (CDC, 1993) suggested that metal detectors could curtail the number of weapons brought into schools; however, there was no concurrent reduction in school violence and disorder at the classroom level. Other research suggested that school administrators and other school stakeholders may develop an unjustified sense of security resulting from the implementation of equipment-based measures designed to lower the incidence of school crimes (Ascher, 1994; Schneider, 2001). Drawing a slightly different picture, Wilson-Brewer and Spivak (1994) reported on a New York City school weapon-prevention approach that utilized school security staff with hand-held metal detectors. This approach led to a significant reduction in weapon-based incidents, with improved student attendance and indications that students felt safer at school. Multiple research reports have suggested that using metal detectors, locking outside doors, searching lockers, and having hallway security patrols don’t reduce classroom violence (Aleem et al., 1993; CDC, 1993; Skiba & Peterson, 2000; Gagnon & Leone, 2001). Causal research demonstrating beneficial effects of these technologies is rare. Researchers have suggested that a near-exclusive focus on school security measures may alienate students, making schools seem like jails (Ascher, 1994; Brotherton, 1996; Juvonen, 2001; Mayer & Leone, 1999; Noguerra, 1995; Peterson, Larson, & Skiba, 2001).
School Resource Officers (SROs) Compared to other research on school security, more work has been directed toward School Resource Officers (SRO) programs. One national study considered student interactions with SROs, student perceptions, and associations among environmental factors, neighborhood violence, student comfort in reporting crime, and students’ feelings of safety (McDevitt & Panniello, 2005). This study, however, did not investigate whether the presence of SROs is associated with lower rates of school violence.
Nine other studies, from North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Kansas, New Hampshire, Virginia, and an unnamed southern U.S. city, offer some insights into the current state of knowledge (or lack thereof) regarding the effectiveness of SROs (Center for Schools and Communities, 2001; Chen, Chang, & Tombs, 1999; Eisert, 2005a, 2005b; Foster & Vizzard, 2000; Humphrey, 2001; Johnson, 1999; Klopovic, McDaniel, Sullivan, Vasu, & Vasu, 1996; Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, 2000, 2001). Almost all of the studies employed mixed quantitative and qualitative methods, primarily using survey data. Only the Kansas study used moderately rigorous quantitative methodology. This body of research as a whole suggests that SROs are considered favorably by school personnel and parents, but while tending to be positive, have met equivocal responses from students. No study has demonstrated a causal link showing that SRO programs reduce school violence and disruption; however, the authors of many studies suggested that SROs help to reduce violence and disorder. More than half of the studies reported that students felt safer at school after the SRO program was established.
None of the studies mentioned has shown a causal relationship between specific security procedures and a reduction in school violence and disorder. Several investigations reported that metal detectors can reduce the number of weapons in schools, but several other studies have stated that metal detectors do not reduce school violence. No data have evaluated the effects of school security cameras in reducing violence or disruption. In summary, research has been lean and methodologically limited, and findings have been mixed. Among all the security approaches studied, SROs have seen the most favorable results, but even those findings must be evaluated with caution...."
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