(In) Security: How Does the Way We Think About School Violence Affect the Classroom?

school security
In the twenty years since the horrific events at Columbine High School, concern about student safety has focused intently on preventing similar multi-victim shootings, and similar events have been disturbingly repeated on school campuses across the United States. Yet, as Annette Fuentes notes in Lockdown High, her 2011 book on the history of school violence, “Each year since Columbine, the incidence of school crime and violence, including shooting deaths, has continued its downward trend, in lockstep with declining crime rates in society overall.”1

The actual likelihood of being involved in a mass shooting is exceedingly slight, as unlikely as being struck by lightning.2 However, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, a majority of students are afraid they, themselves, are going to be shot.3 Meanwhile, the marketplace for “school safety” products—bulletproof backpacks, security cameras, metal detectors, etc.—has grown into a $3 billion per year business despite little evidence that these measures significantly reduce shootings or minimize the loss of life.4 Further, research suggests that daily interactions with armed guards and other “policing” efforts may make students feel less safe.5

Asked about their experiences with regimens such as active shooter drills and lockdowns that are intended to make students and staff safer, members of the Center’s Teacher Advisory Council offered these thoughts about the effects on students:

“…the normalization of violence in learning environments has clearly had a profound impact on students…many, as reflected in the Pew [study], quietly or privately express great concern for the fearful unknown.”

“Students have come to feel that their voices don’t matter, and instead internalize their trauma, anger, and bitterness…as a teacher of history and civics, I’ve long felt that activating students’ voices is a weapon against the ignorance that plagues this country, and has set our political system out of balance.”

“They are scared and they are motivated. Many are fed up with the anxiety of the drill culture. Many of the teachers and students have turned to something more meaningful, relationship building. If the culture of the school is steered toward healthy relationships then the need for drills diminishes.”

What role can the humanities play in alleviating anxieties and possibly even helping make schools safe places? Historical and philosophical pedagogy, critical media literacy, and civics training can help students contextualize and thoughtfully explore the dynamics of violence in their schools and communities and consider how to effectively address them. Studies have shown that reading fiction builds empathy6 and forges deeper understanding of others7, and creative expression (writing, graphic and performing arts) allows students to grapple with complex ideas, fraught with emotion, and to feel that they are both seen and heard.

  1. Fuentes, Annette. “A Brief History of School Violence in the United States.” Excerpt from Lockdown High, 2011, reprinted on the Weekend Reads blog, March 23, 2018.
  2. Schildkraut, Jaclyn. “Have We Become Too Paranoid About Mass Shootings?” The Conversation, October 22, 2019.
  3. Graff, Nikki. “A Majority of U.S. Teens Fear a Shooting Could Happen at Their School, and Most Parents Share Their Concern.” Pew Research Center, April 18, 2018.
  4. Carlson, John S. “Keeping Students Safe is a Growth Industry Struggling to Fulfill its Mission.” The Conversation, October 16, 2019.
  5. Keels, Micere. “The False Comfort of Securing Schools.” The New York Times, September 6, 2018.
  6. Hammond, Claudia. “Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?” BBC Future, June 2, 2019.
  7. Scheidenhelm, Carol. “Losing Humanities in Education is Propelling a Deficit of Empathy.” The Hill, April 9, 2018.

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