Balancing the Physical and Psychological Safety of Students
The reading, writing, and arithmetic students learn in school is only part of the vital education they receive from kindergarten through the end of high school. Students also learn the skills and strategies needed to be well-adjusted and emotionally balanced members of society as they navigate friendships, classroom activities, and their extracurricular programs.
Yet those lessons — both academic and social — might be in danger as schools ramp up security in the face of increasing gun violence. Although intentions are good, schools might actually be stressing students out even more by turning schools into places that feel more like combat zones than learning sanctuaries. This can have far-reaching negative effects on student development: When students undergo stress or feel unsafe, their brains enter fight-or-flight mode, which makes it difficult to focus on learning. Studies show that when a state of stress is prolonged, it becomes toxic and can negatively impact students’ learning, health, and behavior.
A Balanced Approach to School Security
When schools take a more balanced approach, their educational professionals address the social and emotional well-being of students alongside actions that secure their physical safety. Students and their parents are assured by security measures in place — they can see the cameras, they know someone is monitoring the security desk at the front door, they know teachers are trained to respond to emergencies, and they understand there is a clearly articulated safety plan in place.
A balanced approach addresses the physical safety of students without sacrificing their emotional health. It doesn’t rely on heavy-handed tactics that cause unnecessary anxiety about a school shooter, and it contributes to a secure school without negatively impacting a welcoming learning environment.
The challenges to achieving a balanced security approach are largely perceptual and often logistical. For example, metal detectors tax school resources and take a psychological toll, no matter how effective they are at deterring danger. Students might naturally feel insecure or anxious because they perceive an imminent threat. Armed security guards on campus can also cause anxiety. Because of the limitations around their interactions with students, they’re not likely to see armed guards in the same way they do other helpful, trusted adults.
Although balancing physical and psychological well-being can be a delicate act, it’s not impossible. School administrators can coordinate the efforts of security and technology specialists to protect the physical safety of students while working with teachers and mental health professionals to ensure learning environments are conducive to social and emotional growth. The following strategies should be part of the plan to make schools safer:
Secure the perimeter of the school at all times
This strategy is low-intensity, effective, and doesn’t require schools to disrupt students’ lives. However basic it is, though, it requires active monitoring. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where access to a school is compromised; for instance, maybe a sports team that practices outdoors leaves a door propped open to allow student-athletes to run back inside and grab something. Most of the time, no one is left to watching the door. In another scenario, maybe supplies are going through the back door and the worker is called away without locking the door. These situations, however uncommon, leave buildings unsecured and vulnerable to intruders.
Outside of reinforcing stricter protocols for students and staff to enter or exit the building, most schools also protect their perimeter by requiring visitors to enter the building through a set of doors that can be locked remotely. Visitors then enter a holding area for positive identification and clearance before getting access to enter the school.
Track risk indicators for students
Monitoring behavioral risk factors for students can preemptively and non-invasively address potential safety issues while helping students. Deviations in student behavior include an increase in disciplinary referrals, a decrease in grades, or sudden changes in attendance. There might also be indicators of drug or alcohol use. The goal here is to identify behavioral changes that signal a need for intervention early so schools can address any concerns proactively and assist students.
We’ve learned over the years that students who go on to harm other students often do so out of a sense of disconnect from others or because they feel aggrieved for some reason. Programs from organizations such as Sandy Hook Promise can help schools teach students how to develop empathy and a sense of connection to others. These programs can be beneficial to individuals who display some of the aforementioned risk factors — and to all students in general.
Consider technology carefully
Schools should be thoughtful about which technology solutions they implement. Software-based camera systems for threat detection, for instance, can usually be worked into existing camera systems that many schools have in place (as opposed to hardware-based solutions that would require further installments). This eliminates the need to physically impose more security measures that might cause undue stress on students. When considering the kind of threat detection systems to use, always consider how the capabilities could impact the psychological well-being of students. Facial recognition software, for instance, would likely cause concern among parents and students about having identifying information recorded.
Students need to be physically safe at school, and their psychological safety cannot be ignored. By taking a smart and balanced approach to security, schools can achieve both physical and psychological safety — making schools safer and healthier places for learning and growth.
Patrick Brimstein, a veteran school district superintendent and former Special Forces team member, currently works with Actuate as an educational advisor. He provides operational knowledge of public education systems, strategic market insights, and subject area expertise in support of student well-being and safer schools.