School Mental Health Project

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 --

and the Online Clearinghouse Quick Find on the topic

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:

Some Perspectives

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.)

Excerpts from an article in the Columbia News Service

from Terrorism to Tornadoes, Schools Prepare for the Worst by Megan O'Neill

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."

Excerpt from:
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).

Personnel-Based Approaches:
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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