Opinion: Are Campus Police Impeding or Improving School Safety’s Progress?

Relying solely on police to address school safety challenges is best explained by the old adage: “When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Published: October 19, 2022

As a retired officer who began his career just before the homicidal attack at Columbine High School and spent time as a school resource officer (SRO) in addition to raising several children, I can attest that school safety has long been a subject of concern to educators. However concerning it has been, little progress has been made over the last 25 years, leaving one to ask, “Why?”

After the 2018 Parkland rampage at Marjorie Stoneman-Douglas High School (MSDHS), while I had three of my own children still in school (and two in high school), I looked into school safety with renewed passion. I was struck by the difference that 20 years had made in law enforcement training and response to active violence while the school response at MSDHS seemed largely unchanged. Connecting with others – teachers, administrators, researchers, counselors, veterans and law enforcement officers who saw the need to help our schools protect our children – we read, discussed and proposed many ideas, yet kept coming back to the need for a more comprehensive package (which I will discuss in more detail later in this article), rather than the physical measures that were being widely adopted.

At the same time, as before and since, educators across the country were also looking to improve school safety. As they were not experts in safety, some sought degrees themselves, some resigned over the struggles, and most, trusting the police they knew locally, turned to them for answers.

Police officers are the first to respond to most of the worst incidents in life, and homicidal attacks are no exception to that. Thus, they are the natural choice for advice as the most knowledgeable in how a response will occur. Law enforcement also has an understanding of security from dealing with prisoner detention and break-ins. The problem with turning to police for the resolution of school safety is best explained by using an old adage: “When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

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We Must Adopt a Comprehensive Approach to School Safety Planning

As a former police officer, I was no exception to this approach and mindset. When I first started looking at school safety, my response was: put an armed, tactically trained individual, solely responsible for countering violence, in every school. Why? Because that is what I knew.

I still believe that would be helpful, but as more recent incidents have shown us, law enforcement in schools does not prevent attacks from occurring. I have changed my concept of a solution because I have changed what I know about the problem.

The formula to school safety is very complex – as is the dilemma. Counter to what physical security companies and their experts tout, without instituting militaristic measures and monies to scale, the answer to school safety cannot be physical. Instead, the solution will actually improve the education process by considering the whole-child, indeed, by considering the whole-school: Comprehensive School Safety Planning.

The solution I alluded to earlier is to look across each district and adopt Comprehensive School Safety Planning measures befitting community ideals, prioritizing them not through target hardening (security measures turning schools into fortresses) but through overall student wellness. This means physical security improvements combined with procedural adaptations, training to go with them and most importantly, improvements in information collection to provide assistance and acceptance to students more readily.

School Physical Security Solutions Have Their Limits and Challenges

This highlights the problem when turning to police officers to solve the school safety problem. Police perform a “security check” at the school, sometimes calling it a “risk assessment” or even using the term “vulnerability assessment,” a more educated term for what should be done, but usually inappropriate for the task that is completed (one that I myself have performed, I admit).  After doing this physical security assessment, police then propose increased physical security measures. The educators and public, not versed in either the problem nor its root causes, see a proposed change with tangible implements and so they buy in.

I want to pause for a moment here and say I love my brothers and sisters in law enforcement, blue, brown, green, black, tan or any other color. I greatly appreciate the work that they do. I am thankful that they are out there and ready to respond to the worst that humans do to each other. I know that they are always well meaning and work with the best intentions – as do most of us. I also know that some of them are well educated, even more so than myself, on school safety.

I also want to be clear that I am not against physical security measures in school safety. Sometimes there is an immediate need for new physical security measures; they are always a part of the solution. Yet even as one renowned expert recently demanded the need for metal detectors at all schools, the tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, would not have been prevented.

More often, physical security advocates talk about things like securing doors, adding cameras, screening those entering the building, ballistic shielding and of course, the door barricade. Many companies, a good portion of them started by police officers, offer myriad products to supplement safety. These devices are promoted to police agencies as well as schools. As people with their lives in physical jeopardy frequently, officers can readily recognize benefits from these devices, becoming proponents of them.

Unfortunately, most officers aren’t educating themselves to the multi-faceted environment that is the everyday school, with the plethora of complications that it involves. So while a door barricade device sounds like a good simple solution, the implementation of them (outside of the fact that the vast majority of attackers do not attempt to enter classrooms) can cause potential for problems: their misuse preventing entry by authorities, their impediment to exit, and the need for fine motor skills top the list. While metal detectors may provide some deterrence, the application – cost to maintain, training for proper operation, staffing costs and scheduling for effectiveness, the “bottlenecking” and exterior crowding that they create, the complications for high schools with students daily transfers – leaves more questions than answers and more initial concerns than solutions.

Campuses Must Have Mental/Emotional Services, a Healthy Culture, and More

The overall problem and solution in school safety require a larger view, a more comprehensive view. The physical portion of this is fairly simple to address when budgets allow and should be continually improved upon. Procedures and preparation, with an ALL-hazards EOP (emergency operations plan), equipment and training, using simple calls and responses, with instructions, demonstration and practice should be mandatory annually as students and staff change and repetition breeds familiarity.

Mental and emotional education, support and services, positive behavior recognition, multi-tiered systems of support, for students and staff, are a large part of school safety that is too frequently overlooked, even by educators (except for those who think that this is the only portion of school safety which is necessary for schools to provide).

And there is the less tangible piece of school culture, from staff as well as students, who and what is recognized, how globally encompassing the culture is, how welcoming, how other-centered it is, that vastly affects school safety, yet is seldom addressed.

A relatively new development, student behavior reporting and monitoring, needs to become widely prevalent to provide opportunity to prevent student crisis.

All of these are components of Comprehensive School Safety Planning, without all of which, schools of today are prone to tragedies: run-aways, addiction, suicides, and yes, attacks. Looking at school safety as a whole and identifying its components, one can see how little the physical portion actually covers.

Physical Security, Police Are Only Part of the Solution

It has been 25 years since the attack at Columbine. We know things need to be different in school safety. When will we start to do differently?

Police are a great asset in Comprehensive School Safety Planning. Coordination between schools and local officers is a must. Combined training and exercises with them is beneficial for everyone. Officers are an important part of a threat assessment team. However, we must all come to the realization that physical security is a PART of school safety improvement, not the answer.

Anthony Beattie is CEO and protection coordinator of ATAP Comprehensive.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series