Stepping up school security after Newtown

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12/19/2012

The outrage and debate in the wake of the Newtown massacre will inevitably bring change. It might not involve the federal action that many have demanded—a ban on assault weapons tops the list—but it is certain to include local initiatives that strengthen school security: improved access control, additional guard services, expanded video surveillance or a combination of the three.

Unfortunately, school shootings are a problem that security alone can’t address, involving complex issues that go well beyond simply installing metal detectors or better entry controls. A determined, well-armed assailant will still be able to kill despite the best intentions of public officials—that was proven in Newtown. Progress can be made to limit the scope of such tragedies, but to think we can eliminate them is naïve.

That being said, and with the horror of the Connecticut shootings still painfully fresh, it might come as a surprise to learn that the number of school homicides in the United States has dropped since the early 1990s. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were two years during that decade—1992 and 1997—when the school homicide toll among students ages 5-18 rose to 34. By 2010, that number had fallen to 17. The decline hasn’t been constant and one slain student is one too many, but it’s a decline nonetheless.

For many schools, the tipping point for action was the Columbine High massacre in 1999, which led to the widespread adoption of lockdown procedures and other safety protocols. That sense of urgency has faded, however, according to school security consultant Kenneth Trump, who told The Washington Post this week that “the conversation and the training that we have today [are] not at the same level of consistency and intensity.”

Physical security assets at the nation’s schools also have lagged. Michael Dorn, executive director of the nonprofit group Safe Havens International, told the Post that fewer than 10 percent of U.S. schools have strong access control with locked entryways, buzzers, protective glass and camera or intercom systems. That’s likely to change after Newtown, he said, as school districts feel pressure to upgrade security.

“There’s a shift from concern to panic, if you will, and you have parents doing something to improve safety,” Dorn said.

That presents an opportunity for security companies not only to benefit financially—the unspoken result whenever such tragedies occur—but also to strengthen the protection of children across the nation. Regardless of what happens at the federal level, local school districts are sure to come knocking.

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