Violence in schools is down. So why are we spending more on security?

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Schools are continuing to step up campus security measures despite the fact that actual school violence has declined in the last couple of decades.


After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, two and half years ago left school administrators and families reeling, elementary and high schools have added deterrents like cameras and hired security officers, according to new figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The rate of violent incidents per 1,000 students in 2013-14 was 13.5 in elementary schools, 23.6 in middle schools, and 14.3 in high schools. During the 2009-10 school year, the last year for which there is such data, it was 21 in elementary schools, 40 in middle schools, and 21 in high schools.

Despite the fact that violence was more prevalent during the 2009-10 school year, less than 60 percent of schools had plans in place for how to handle a shooting. Now, nearly nine out of 10 have written a plan, and seven out of 10 schools have drilled their students on active shooter situations. Yet, just two percent of public schools reported a physical attack or fight with a weapon during the 2013-14 school year. Three-quarters of schools around the country now use cameras, and some have also installed bulletproof glass and posted security guards around campus.

So why the uptick in often-costly safety measures that aren't, statistically, more necessary?

One reason is that shootings like the one at Sandy Hook grip the nation and dominate media coverage for weeks, despite the fact that they are rare. And a robust network of school security providers recognizes the marketing power behind the fear that children might not be safe at school.

Todd DeMitchell, a professor of education and justice studies at the University of New Hampshire, said he began to see Kevlar backpacks and other products come on the market after Sandy Hook.


Schools that had been cash-strapped suddenly found money for fences, he said, and began posting signs warning gun-wielding intruders that they would be shot down. Even the language has shifted, he said, from talk about school safety to school security, and there's been a similar shift toward spending on security products like cameras and fences.

Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, which advises schools on safety precautions, said the number of inquiries he received after Sandy Hook rose.


Days after the Newtown shooting, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio began putting armed volunteer guards at schools around Phoenix.

"I'm always going to get critics," Arpaio told Fusion at the time. "They'll probably say I've got the posse out there to arrest kids who are in this country illegally. That's not the case. That's not true. They're there to protect all kids."


But Dr. Dewey Cornell, a professor in the school of education at the University of Virginia and director of the school's Virginia Youth Violence Project, told Fusion studies show no relationship between security measures and crime in schools.

"There is evidence, however, that mental health counseling efforts with troubled students and programs to improve the school climate have a beneficial effect," Cornell wrote in an email.


"Schools have been driven by fear of school shootings to spend millions on school security measures," he added, "creating a bonanza for security companies, even though the actual risk of a shooting is extremely low."

DeMitchell agrees.

"It placates adults," he said, "but it may not make for safer schools for children."


There's been an overall downward trend in violence, he added, and not just at schools that have installed additional security measures. In fact, he said, some security measures may make it more difficult to convey to kids that school is a safe haven. A shooter is often a student, he said, so it can be more effective to cultivate a positive school culture by addressing bullying and other issues, than by putting up metal detectors to keep people out.

Stephens pushed back at the idea that school security measures might not be necessary and suggests that they are one of the reasons violence in schools has declined.


"There's a deterrent effect," he said.

But he acknowledges that "it's so easy to overreact after a crisis."

There's a balance, he added, between "keeping schools safe without turning them into a juvenile detention facility."


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.