Spotlight on the Safe Schools of the Future

anxiety, Life

There’s a company in Florida offering what it says is the best response to school shootings in the United States: bullet-proof steel enclosures. “Guns are here to stay,” said a company executive, seemingly in resignation to an intractable issue. 

These “pods” are designed to safely shelter an entire classroom of students and their teachers in the event of an active shooter. The design incorporates “military-grade steel,” heat-treated to be resistant to gunfire even from semi-automatic assault-style weapons. The pods are marketed as shelters from both shooters and tornadoes. 

In this concept, there would be one of these pods in every classroom, kids and teachers could enter their pod within one minute, and the pod would be securely lockable from the inside. 

The company, along with other advocates of in-classroom secure shelters, points to a federal government report calling for “secure spaces within classrooms” for students to shelter in. (It’s worth noting that this report was prepared under the former Trump administration, and is now under review due to policies not currently advocated by key federal departments.) 

This is just one response to recent calls to “harden” schools with series of physical barriers, booby traps, shelters, surveillance cameras, a school police presence, and armed teachers. Maybe these fortresses will be safer, but no one has convincingly proven that yet. But they are certainly more forbidding and depressing to look at, let alone go into every day and try to learn. 

One aspect of school “hardening” that’s especially troubling is the criminalization of Black and brown students for normal youthful unruliness or perceived defiance. Studies have shown that school resource officers as a group tend to disproportionately target students of color, escalating minor infractions and sometimes brutally assaulting them. 

How nuclear fears played out in schools 

In the 1950s and ‘60s, parents were panicking over a different threat: nuclear annihilation. And they also demanded action from schools. 

There are Americans alive today who remember being children lying sleepless at night during the Cold War for fear of a nuclear attack striking their homes. After the explosions of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, everyone knew from the horrifying footage of destruction that only agony and horror would follow. There were children who prayed for a quick death, instead of slow poisoning from radiation sickness. 

While some—mostly white and middle-class—Americans have memories of an idyllic time, those fears still permeated daily life. The federal government urged the building of backyard fallout shelters, and school safety drills included the useless “Duck and Cover” series of “educational” films, where cartoon characters showed kids how to dive under their desks in case of nuclear attack. 

Those very real fears of nuclear annihilation continued throughout the Cold War. In 1983, American adults watched the TV movie The Day After, a fictionalized look at what could happen to an ordinary community during and after a nuclear attack. A lot of their kids watched it, too, even if they only caught snippets of the film after sneaking out of bed. 

What happens to an 8- or 10-year-old exposed to such a highly dramatic rendition of absolute destruction of everything important to them? The now-adults who glimpsed the apocalypse in The Day After have written of the anxiety it provoked. They mentally mapped out their own escape routes just in case. They wondered whether the attack would come at night or during the day, and how they would react: Maybe they’d bravely rescue their whole families, or maybe they’d be turned to a pile of chemical ash before they knew what happened. 

Real concerns, extreme responses 

The panic surrounding school shootings shows similarities. We’re talking about two very real and terrifying types of events. An estimated 200,000 people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, hundreds of people have lost their lives in school shootings in the United States. Nuclear war and school shootings deserve the full weight of seriousness that adults can bring to creating solutions.  

But with school shootings, we’re also seeing the same type of irrational fears, fear-mongering, profiteering, political posturing, and well-meaning non-solutions that accompanied the Cold War nuclear panic. 

In a recent survey, more than 60 percent of parents expressed fears that their child would be involved in a school shooting. Yet experts and statisticians know the odds are very small. A Northwestern University criminologist noted in 2022 that the probability of any particular American being killed in any type of mass shooting approaches 10 million to 1. 

Choosing common sense and community 

In the case of potential nuclear war, there were—and are—so many complex geopolitical factors at work beyond the ability of any parent to solve. In the case of guns, it’s much easier to make a positive, practical difference. We can make choices here and now that keep kids safer while not saddling them with the anxiety and trauma that comes with constant fear and hyper-vigilance. 

Students going to school in communities of color have been over-policed and over-surveilled for years. So now, instead of dismantling that unjust and ineffective system, we’re going to extend it to everyone? 

The problem isn’t just letting our own fears get out of control. It also lies in the increasing proliferation of guns, and easy access to them. President Biden signed the first major gun safety bill into law in June 2022, and there are things it gets right: expanding background checks, closing loopholes on gun purchases by people who shouldn’t have them, incentivizing states to pass “red-flag” legislation that removes weapons from people who pose a threat to others or themselves. The legislation also includes support for related school safety and mental health services. 

The most common background of a school shooting: A young person or group experiencing a mix of anger, depression, or suicidal thoughts, plus access to guns. 

Young people under 21 are disproportionately involved in acts of gun violence, as perpetrators and victims. So it’s imperative that we strengthen legislation to keep guns out of their hands. 

There are other badly needed, and expert-recommended, means of addressing school violence: Create networks of support to systematically reduce student social isolation and everyday aggression. Close existing gaps in mental health services. Build a school community centered on communication, respect, and dialogue. 

What will schools look like in our future? They can become steel-reinforced, hyper-policed, trauma-inducing fallout shelters in a chaotic world where 18-year-olds can carry AK-47s in their backpacks. Or we can equip our schools with effective, realistic security plans within a strong school community that shows respect and support for all, supported by common-sense gun control measures. 

The choice is ours. 

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