The Uvalde school shooting has reignited concerns about violence in schools among educators and again propelled conversations about school safety and security to the top of media coverage and legislative agendas. While active shooter situations in schools, according to the federal Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s school shooting database, remain rare, non-active shooter incidents have steadily increased, contributing to anxiety about school safety in our nation’s K-12 schools. This uptick in school safety anxiety and related mental and emotional impacts on students and teachers is something higher education must step up and take the lead in addressing.
As colleges and universities prepare future educators, safety protocols and concerns about school safety measures need to be top of mind for school stakeholders across the nation. These safety practices include prevention and response and require a systems-wide approach to training, team-based planning and full-scale knowledge for implementation. This work begins before an educator even steps foot in a school building, and it is absolutely imperative that training programs at the higher education level are preparing future educators for the knowledge, self-awareness and skills related to K-12 school safety and security.
The University of Montana’s College of Education — where I teach counselor education — houses training programs for teachers, administrators and school counselors that do just that.
In collaboration with the National Native Children’s Trauma Center (NNCTC), also housed in the College of Education, we are also in the initial planning stages of creating and implementing a trauma certificate spanning its departments and centers, offering current students and community members the opportunity to seek additional professional development in required and elective options to fulfill the certificate conferral. Even as the college awaits results of a feasibility analysis on the certificate, instructors are already bringing related topics into their classrooms.
For example, in ethics and policy classes, students have multiple conversations about school safety and school shootings. In the course on K-12 Leadership, students are tasked with understanding the importance of the school counselor role with respect to school safety, as well as that of the school resource officer. In the facilities course, students consider physical safety as they work through building security issues. In the counseling department, all students are required to take a course titled “Risk and Resiliency,” which addresses trauma, crisis and grief in school, community and clinical settings. This course covers escalation and de-escalation cycles, crisis response/teams, and valuable resources for standard response protocols and emergency operations planning, such as I Love You Guys and the Crisis Prevention Institute.
In addition to NNCTC, the college supports the Montana Safe Schools Center (MSSC), whose mission is completely devoted to school safety, both physical and emotional. MSSC, which I lead, offers trainings to schools, community members and interested students on active shooter training, threat assessment, suicide assessment, site assessment and more. As school safety continues to be prioritized, there are opportunities for the MSSC to offer these trainings to educators-in-training within the College of Education. Even with all that is being done at the University of Montana, still more is needed.
In the recent Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse Student Voice survey, conducted with support from Kaplan, postsecondary students were asked about perception of safety in their educational environment. Of the 2,004 respondents, 94 were education majors. Interestingly, these future teachers were less likely than the full sample to be concerned about the potential of a shooting on campus.
However, I have noticed increasing nervousness in direct response to active shooter tragedies like Uvalde. As a counselor educator, I’m seeing school counselors-in-training who are experiencing anxiety and fear related to the climate of their field placement settings, specifically for those belonging to marginalized groups (BIPOC, LGTBIQ+) that are less recognized and supported in their school and community. Through the Montana Safe Schools Center, I’m seeing more and more schools request trainings related to threat and site assessments as well as active shooter situations. This is critical work for educators to be prepared not only to maintain physical safety in their classrooms but also to manage the anxiety that many of their students feel about this issue (as well as their own).
In determining how to best prepare our future educators to address school safety, we also need to consider how K-12 students perceive safety in their school. One source of this information is the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), given bi-annually to secondary students nationally, which surveys a variety of health, safety and risk-taking behaviors. In Montana, for example, over the past decade, student reports of carrying a weapon at school have decreased while student reports of perceived lack of safety have increased.
While physical safety continues to be a consideration and priority for all school stakeholders, there must be more energy and resources spent addressing emotional safety and wellbeing in school settings. In addition to the preventative practices of site assessments, threat assessments, emergency operations planning, crisis response teams and so on, school leaders and educator training programs must consider well-being of staff and students in the grand arena of school climate.
As I observe districts and states cutting funding and mandates for school counselors, school psychologists and other mental health professionals, I have grave concern for how those decisions negatively impact school safety, actual and perceived. School counselors in particular work with all students, staff and families to impact school climate by influencing systems of security and wellbeing that allow students to access their education. By reducing the number of school counselors, students have less access to these specially trained mental health professionals, lowering achievement and safety in one swoop.
However, when people feel safe, when people perceive control over a situation, when people have the resources they need to make informed decisions, then we see a decrease in anxiety and fear, a decrease in perceived lack of safety, and a decrease in threats of violence. This is where K-12 schools and postsecondary training programs need to start.
Training programs must address perceptions of schools as unsafe settings by focusing on staff and student well-being, positive school climate and school-wide prevention practices. By addressing these perceptions in systemic ways, people will feel safer at school and their perceptions will be closer to matching reality in this capacity. Perceived lack of safety increases anxiety and fear, while increasing perception of safety will decrease anxiety and fear.
When students feel safer, when they perceive their environment to be secure, they are neurologically more readily able to learn and retain new information. This phenomenon applies to their educators as well; when teachers feel safer, they are more readily able to teach and support their students’ learning. The key component of this is not the actual safety, whether or not related to acts of school violence. Rather, it is the perception of safety in the school environment that must be addressed and prioritized.
More coverage of the Student Voice safety and security survey: Students Feel Mostly Safe on College Campuses, But Not Equally So, and Student Safety Wishes: Visible Security, Brighter Walkways, More Crime Prevention.