The COVID-19 pandemic and recent racial justice movements have made it very apparent that our current approaches to keeping students safe and healthy in schools need major restructuring and reform. We lack mental health supports in many schools at a time when students need them most.1 We are punishing and removing students of color from schools at much higher rates than white students, and students with disabilities are three times more likely to receive a punitive punishment than their nondisabled peers.2 Additionally, there are strong calls from communities across the United States to remove law enforcement from schools immediately, with little planning or data-driven support. With the infusion of federal money into states and schools to help address student achievement losses and mental health challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an opportunity for real change.3 This is an opportunity to create sustainable systems and infrastructure that help local districts address their most pressing safety needs through districtwide data-driven strategies that show long-term, positive outcomes for the entire school community.4
Recent data show that 14 million students in the United States attend schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.5 The National Association of School Psychologists6 recommends that the ratio of school psychologists to students be at least 1 for every 500 students. Only one state met this recommendation as of 2021, and over 20 states had a ratio of more than 1,500 students per school psychologist.7 There is no national strategy or infrastructure to lower the ratio of students to counselors, social workers, nurses, and other helping professionals to ensure more supports are available to struggling students.8
In addition to diverting resources that could fund better mental health supports, punitive school security and discipline policies have a strong negative impact on students of color and students with disabilities. More specifically, suspension and expulsion rates, referrals to law enforcement, and punitive discipline rates are disproportionately and consistently higher for students of color and students with disabilities in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the United States, beginning even before students enter kindergarten.9 We should be asking what our schools need to be welcoming and supportive to all. And more importantly, how can policymakers help support that vision with infrastructure, training, and funding to ensure success and sustainability over time?
Shifting the Focus to Social, Emotional, and Mental Health, and a Positive School Climate
Reenvisioning education and schools across the United States must account for the large bodies of research showing that schools with strong, caring, culturally supportive, and positive climates can not only address issues of ongoing victimization but also prevent students from being victimized.10 Little evidence suggests that law enforcement strategies have prevented school shootings or made schools feel safer for students.11 However, significant research has highlighted the negative impact that security, law enforcement, and punitive approaches can have on school climate, including lowering students’ sense of belonging and safety and academic performance.12 These negative outcomes disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities, which can lead to social isolation, disengagement, and dropping out of school.13 Given the existing evidence, policies need to shift from “hardening” practices (such as more police and metal detectors) to strategies that foster a positive community and civil relationships in schools.14
This change requires a shift of funding and support from policing, punishment, and surveillance to long-term investments in holistic prevention and empowerment of schools and communities. Given wide local, regional, and state variation in populations, the most effective and appropriate interventions are driven by local school safety assessments, capacity building, integration of academic and social goals, partnerships with community organizations, consideration of the voices of all school stakeholders, and collaborations with universities.15
The arguments to fund security measures in schools are generally based on fear, opinion, and often, political views.16 In most school shootings with mass casualties, schools had armed personnel either on campus at the time of the shooting or there within minutes,17 and their presence failed to prevent the shootings or stop the shooters from using weapons on school grounds (e.g., Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Robb Elementary School). Similarly, most mass shootings have occurred in schools that had security cameras, security protocols, and electronic monitoring systems.18 And finally, most shooters were students or former students who were familiar with the layout of the school rather than random strangers targeting a school.19
More than 20,000 school resource officers (SROs) work in schools across the country, which doesn’t include the presence of armed security or “guardians” who are not active-duty law enforcement officers.20 Federal funding (COPS in Schools and other grants) during the past several decades has encouraged schools to hire active-duty law enforcement to work full time in schools. Research on the effectiveness of SROs is mixed, and no definitive data have indicated that the presence of an SRO deters or lowers casualties in a mass school shooting.21
However, evidence suggests that punitive disciplinary policies and the presence of a law enforcement officer in schools can affect the numbers of students being arrested, with devastating effects on students of color and students with disabilities.22
Although Black students represent 15 percent of student enrollment, they represent 29 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 32 percent of students subjected to school-related arrest.23 Regarding students with disabilities, the rate of school arrests is three times that of students without disabilities, and it increases exponentially when police are present on campus.24
Despite federal and state funding and incentives, most states have very limited guidance and legislation related to SRO training, and as of 2018, 18 states had “no laws on SRO certification, use, or training.”25 The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), the largest training organization for school-based police in the United States, recently released a statement about the importance of “local and collaborative” decision-making that focuses on “weighing the risk of harm” with potential benefits prior to hiring law enforcement to work in schools.26
Creating a Positive, Supportive, and Welcoming School Climate
A large body of research has demonstrated the positive impact of whole-school and whole-child prevention approaches that focus on developing and maintaining a welcoming and supportive climate and minimizing the removal of students from school.27 A positive school climate is characterized by respectful student, teacher, and staff relationships; teacher and peer support; clear, fair, and consistent rules and disciplinary policies; support for diversity and inclusion; effective school-home communication; and student engagement and a sense of belongingness in school and school activities.28 Sharing some of the same core principles, social and emotional learning refers to supports and processes that help “children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”29
School safety researchers know that there are promising, data-driven findings indicating that programs that focus on schoolwide or districtwide efforts to improve school climate and promote social and emotional learning can lower levels of victimization in school and increase feelings of safety for all students.30 Strong evidence suggests that efforts to improve school climate or promote social and emotional learning are most impactful when they are schoolwide or districtwide and involve all stakeholders. When these programs are implemented with consistency across a district, all students experience significant improvements in academic and victimization outcomes, along with a reduction in discrepancies in academic achievement and discipline among students of color, students with lower socioeconomic status, and students with disabilities.31
Restorative justice techniques and comprehensive threat-assessment teams are a promising alternative to punitive, zero-tolerance policies when these programs are part of the comprehensive safety plan for a school or district.32 Restorative justice practices focus on improving the overall culture and climate of the school through engaging in conflict resolution and problem solving; developing and nurturing positive relationships in the school environment; reinforcing positive communication strategies; encouraging all students to be actively involved in their school; and promoting, teaching, and reinforcing respect for one another.33 Restorative practices, when clearly structured and used schoolwide, can effectively disrupt discrepancies in exclusionary punishment practices based on racial and disability status.34
Another effective alternative to zero-tolerance policies is comprehensive threat assessment.35 Teams of trained school professionals use a step-by-step procedure to gather information and assess threats as either transient (not serious or intentional) or substantive (clear intent to carry out the threat). Appropriate interventions and supports are then instituted based on the needs of the student who made the threat and the safety needs of other students.36 When threat assessment is implemented on a districtwide basis, multiple studies37 have shown lower suspension rates across all racial and ethnic groups, a more positive school climate, fewer instances of bullying and violence, and increases in teachers feeling safe; one study found a 79 percent decrease in bullying.38
Many schools have started to include positive social and emotional learning and climate measures but have not removed preexisting punitive approaches. The simultaneous use of punitive and positive approaches to safety in the same school or district can lead to confusion about student discipline and send inconsistent messages to students about behaviors and consequences. Rather than funding competing programs or policies with conflicting messages, there is a need to develop a unified whole-school approach to safety.39 It is critical that school board members, superintendents, administrators, and teachers have access to research and training, both at the pre-service level and through professional development, on the devastating impact exclusionary and punitive disciplinary practices can have on certain groups of students.40 Adding social and emotional learning or a program focused on improving climate to a school or district while still utilizing policing or punitive discipline does not make sense, is confusing, and is not data driven. Yet many districts opt for both approaches as a form of political compromise without consideration of the mixed message this creates for the entire school community.
Key Components of an “Optimal” Vision of School Safety
The National Association of School Psychologists,41 in collaboration with NASRO and several other professional organizations, introduced recommendations that would allow districts to create and maintain comprehensive, research-based school safety policies. These recommendations include flexible and sustainable funding streams that allow schools to address their most pressing safety needs by promoting school-community partnerships, multi-tiered support systems, inter- and intra-agency collaborations, and the use of evidence-based standards.42 Partnerships, assessment, and sustainability are critical to the success of any school safety program.
From a policy standpoint, funding, flexibility, incentives, and infrastructure to promote collaborations between universities and local decision-makers would make it more viable for districts to use data from a wide range of stakeholders to address their most pressing school safety needs. These partnerships should be integrated into the curricula of teacher-, social worker-, school psychologist-, principal-, and superintendent-preparation programs in universities. Such partnerships would set up a system for key school personnel to develop an understanding of how to create welcoming, safe, and supportive schools through procedures and structures for collecting and using local data and constituent voices to drive safety policies and procedures in every school. Creating and sustaining infrastructure in preparation programs to encourage local data-driven decisions also would create an opportunity to address issues of school safety in terms of race, gender, disability status, policing and social justice, and punitive safety policies in an academic setting. In addition, this would help university-based preparation programs build capacity to help school professionals understand data-driven, welcoming, and growth-oriented school safety policies and practices.43 And local decision-makers need to be able to advocate for and have resources and funding available to support a whole-school approach to safety, which is more likely to have an impact and be sustained over time.44
A vast literature indicates what works and what doesn’t work in the field of school safety. Drawing from evidence-based programs and policies that have a positive impact on perceptions of safety in schools45 will help policymakers focus on the best ways to address their community’s unique school and community safety needs.46 Federal policies and funding that encourage schools to examine strategies for removing zero-tolerance, policing, and punitive policies are vital for a seismic shift to occur in how we approach school safety. It is critical that local stakeholders and decision-makers have the support of university collaborators to collect and analyze their own data and make evidence-based decisions that are appropriate for their district. Decades of research show that any “hardening” of security efforts needs to consider the potential impact on the climate of schools and the disproportionate impact punitive discipline can have on students of color and students with disabilities in terms of academic success and feelings of connection to school.47
Federal and state policymakers need to direct legislation and funding away from school policing to more holistic, supportive, and nonpunitive practices. There are some promising signs, including the Every Student Succeeds Act allowing some flexibility for states to examine school climate and social-emotional variables to help meet the reporting requirements for school quality or student success.48 Although not required, departments of education at the state level can choose to look at school climate and/or social and emotional learning through support from the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments and/or apply for federal grant opportunities such as the School Climate Transformation Grant.49 This is a promising step, but the funding for these initiatives is still miniscule when compared to the funding allocated to school-based policing. Incentivizing or requiring all states to evaluate school climate through providing infrastructure and financial support for collaborations between districts and researchers would likely increase the number of districts that include these variables in academic and safety-related discussions.
Years of research show us the value and effectiveness of inclusive and comprehensive safety programs and policies, prevention and investment in data-driven practices, and the creation of welcoming and supportive schools and districts.50 Empowering districts to invest in long-term, research-based solutions can begin with national calls to examine punitive disciplinary policies in every district and to consider holistic and empowering models for safety. There are so much data to spark this conversation (e.g., Civil Rights Data Collection, Welcoming Empowerment Monitoring Approach). We now need structures and incentives for bringing decision-makers and researchers together over time for meaningful and goal-oriented interactions. Encouraging discussion and partnerships in the area of school safety is a key component of creating and sustaining holistic, evidence-based, financially viable, relevant, and data-driven school safety solutions that work for all.
Heather M. Reynolds is a professor of teacher education in the School for Graduate Studies at SUNY Empire State College, where her research focuses on creating safe, engaging, and welcoming school and classroom environments. Ron Avi Astor is the Crump Professor in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, department of Social Welfare, with a joint appointment in the School of Education. His work focuses on the socio-ecological influences of society, family, community, school, and culture on different forms of school violence. This article is adapted from “Reimagining School Safety During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Call for Policy Strategies to Address Racial and Social Justice,” which Reynolds and Astor contributed to Our Children Can’t Wait: The Urgency of Reinventing Education Policy in America, edited by Joseph P. Bishop.
1. A. Whitaker et al., Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students (Washington, DC: American Civil Liberties Union, 2019).
2. See, for example, C. de Brey et al., Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups 2018, NCES 2019-038 (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, February 2019), nces.ed.gov/pubs2019/2019038.pdf.
3. M. Kelly et al., Opening Schools Safely in the COVID-19 Era: School Social Workers’ Experiences and Recommendations Technical Report (Los Angeles: UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Department of Social Work, 2020), socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=uyYoklIvJnI%3D&portalid=0.
4. See, for example, A. Datnow and V. Park, “Opening or Closing Doors for Students?: Equity and Data Use in Schools,” Journal of Educational Change 19, no. 2 (2018): 131–52.
5. Whitaker et al., Cops and No Counselors.
6. National Association of School Psychologists, “NASP Joins Colleague Organizations in Clarifying Use of SROs in Schools,” press release, August 13, 2020.
7. National Association of School Psychologists, “Shortage of School Psychologists.”
8. See, for example, Whitaker et al., Cops and No Counselors.
9. US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, “Data Snapshot: School Discipline,” Issue Brief no. 1, March 2014, files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED577231.pdf; US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, “School Climate and Safety: Data Highlights on School Climate and Safety in Our Nation’s Public Schools,” 2015-2016 Civil Rights Data Collection, April 2018, ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/school-climate-and-safety.pdf; and An Overview of Exclusionary Discipline Practices in Public Schools for the 2017-18 School Year (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, June 2021).
10. R. Astor and R. Benbenishty, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate in Evolving Contexts: Culture, Organization, and Time (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2019); R. Astor, R. Benbenishty, and K. Watson, “A Conceptual and Large-Scale Empirical Examination of the Welcoming Empowerment Monitoring Approach (WEMA) for School Safety and Substance Use Reduction,” Research on Social Work Practice 31, no. 5 (2021): 454–68; and G. Capp and R. Astor, “Chapter 28: Improving School Climate,” in The School Services Sourcebook, ed. C. Franklin, M. Harris, and P. Allen-Meares, 3rd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, publication forthcoming).
11. J. Counts et al., “School Resource Officers in Public Schools: A National Review,” Education and Treatment of Children 41, no. 4 (2018): 405–30; H. Schwartz et al., The Role of Technology in Improving K–12 School Safety (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016); and Whitaker et al., Cops and No Counselors.
12. Astor and Benbenishty, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate; and N. Bracy, “Student Perceptions of High-Security School Environments,” Youth & Society 43, no. 1 (2011): 365–95.
13. Astor and Benbenishty, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate; and de Brey et al., Status and Trends.
14. J. Rogers, “For School Leaders, a Time of Vigilance and Caring,” Educational Leadership 77, no. 2 (2019): 22–28; J. Rogers et al., Teaching and Learning in the Age of Trump: Increasing Stress and Hostility in America’s High Schools (Los Angeles: UCLA IDEA, School of Education and Information Studies, October 2017); J. Rogers and E. Morrell, “A Force to Be Reckoned With,” in Public Engagement for Public Education, ed. M. Orr and J. Rogers (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020), 227–49.
15. R. Astor and R. Benbenishty, Mapping and Monitoring Bullying and Violence: Building a Safe School Climate (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018); Astor and Benbenishty, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate; Astor, Benbenishty, and Watson, “A Conceptual and Large-Scale Empirical Examination”; and H. Reynolds et al., “Current Approaches to School Safety,” in The School Services Sourcebook, ed. C. Franklin, M. Harris, and P. Allen-Meares, 3rd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, publication forthcoming).
16. H. Reynolds, “Reflections of a Board of Education Member in a Time of Politicization and Intolerance,” Teachers College Record (July 18, 2019); and H. Reynolds and R. Astor, “Life and Death School Safety Choices in Search of Data and Science,” Teachers College Record (December 12, 2018).
17. C. Ingraham, “For Many Mass Shooters, Armed Guards Aren’t a Deterrent, They’re Part of the Fantasy,” Washington Post, March 1, 2018.
18. M. Berman and L. Meckler, “Parkland Shooting Commission Describes School Security Lapses, Police Missteps,” Washington Post, December 12, 2018.
19. Ingraham, “For Many Mass Shooters”; M. Livingston, M. Rossheim, and K. Hall, “A Descriptive Analysis of School and School Shooter Characteristics and the Severity of School Shooting in the United States, 1999–2018,” Journal of Adolescent Health 64, no. 6 (2019): 797–99; and D. Paradice, “An Analysis of U.S. School Shooting Data (1840–2015),” Education 138, no. 2 (2017): 135–44.
20. National Association of School Resource Officers, “Our Mission,” nasro.org/aboutnasro/our-mission.
21. Counts et al., “School Resource Officers”; N. James and G. McCallion, “School Resources Officers: Law Enforcement Officers in Schools,” Congressional Research Service, June 26, 2013, sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/R43126.pdf; and W. Jennings et al., “Evaluating the Relationship Between Law Enforcement and School Security Measures and Violent Crime in Schools,” Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations 11, no. 2 (2011): 109–24.
22. Counts et al., “School Resource Officers”; D. Devlin and D. Gottfredson, “The Roles of Police Officers in Schools: Effects on the Recording and Reporting of Crime,” Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 16, no. 2 (2018): 208–23; A. Ksinan et al., “National Ethnic and Racial Disparities in Disciplinary Practices: A Contextual Analysis in American Secondary Schools,” Journal of School Psychology 74 (2019): 106–25; and N. Okilwa and C. Robert, “School Discipline Disparity: Converging Efforts for Better Student Outcomes,” Urban Review 49, no. 2 (2017): 239–62.
23. An Overview of Exclusionary Discipline Practices in Public Schools for the 2017-18 School Year.
24. Whitaker et al., Cops and No Counselors.
25. Counts et al., “School Resource Officers,” quote from page 414.
26. National Association of School Resource Officers, “NASRO Joins Other National Organizations in Call for Rigorous Training and Appropriate Use of School Resource Officers,” August 14, 2020.
27. Astor and Benbenishty, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate.
28. Astor and Benbenishty, Mapping and Monitoring.
29. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, “Fundamentals of SEL,” 2021, casel.org/fundamentals-of-sel, quote from paragraph 1.
30. See, for example, Astor and Benbenishty, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate; Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, “Providing a Registry of Experimentally Proven Programs,” 2020, blueprintsprograms.org; Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, “Fundamentals of SEL”; and M. Mayer and S. Jimerson, eds., School Safety and Violence Prevention: Science, Practice, and Policy Driving Change (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2019).
31. See, for example, R. Berkowitz et al., “A Research Synthesis of the Associations Between Socioeconomic Background, Inequality, School Climate, and Academic Achievement,” Review of Educational Research 87, no. 2 (2017): 425–69.
32. See, for example, A. Gregory and K. Evans, “The Starts and Stumbles of Restorative Justice in Education: Where Do We Go from Here?,” National Education Policy Center, January 14, 2020, nepc.colorado.edu/publication/restorative-justice; and S. Ispa-Landa, “Racial and Gender Inequality and School Discipline: Toward a More Comprehensive View of School Policy,” Social Currents 4, no. 6 (2017): 511–17.
33. T. Fronius et al., “Restorative Justice in US Schools: A Research Review,” WestEd Justice & Prevention Training Center, 2016; Gregory and Evans, “The Stars and Stumbles”; H. Norris, “The Impact of Restorative Approaches on Well-Being: An Evaluation of Happiness and Engagement in Schools,” Conflict Resolution Quarterly 36, no. 3 (2019): 221–34.
34. C. Kervick et al., “The Emerging Promise of Restorative Practices to Reduce Discipline Disparities Affecting Youth with Disabilities and Youth of Color: Addressing Access and Equity,” Harvard Educational Review 89, no. 4 (2019): 588–610.
35. D. Cornell et al., “Student Threat Assessment as a Standard School Safety Practice: Results from a Statewide Implementation Study,” School Psychology Quarterly 33, no. 2 (2018): 213–22.
36. Cornell et al., “Student Threat Assessment.”
37. See, for example, D. Cornell et al., “A Retrospective Study of School Safety Conditions in High Schools Using the Virginia Threat Assessment Guidelines Versus Alternative Approaches,” School Psychology Quarterly 24, no. 2 (2009): 119–29; D. Cornell and C. Bradshaw, “From a Culture of Bullying to a Climate of Support: The Evolution of Bullying Prevention and Research,” School Psychology Review 44, no. 4 (2015): 499–503; D. Cornell and J. Maeng, “Statewide Implementation of Threat Assessment in Virginia K–12 Schools,” Contemporary School Psychology 22 (2018): 116–24; and Cornell et al., “Student Threat Assessment.”
38. E. Nekvasil, D. Cornell, and F. Huang, “Prevalence and Offense Characteristics of Multiple Casualty Homicides: Are Schools at Higher Risk Than Other Locations?,” Psychology of Violence 5, no. 3 (2015): 235–45.
39. Astor, Benbenishty, and Watson, “A Conceptual and Large-Scale Empirical Examination”; Astor and Benbenishty, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate; and Ispa-Landa, “Racial and Gender Inequality.”
40. US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, “School Climate and Safety.”
41. National Association of School Psychologists, Policy Recommendations for Implementing the Framework for Safe and Successful Schools (Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists, 2017).
42. National Association of School Psychologists, Policy Recommendations.
43. Astor, Benbenishty, and Watson, “A Conceptual and Large-Scale Empirical Examination”; R. Benbenishty and R. Astor, “Chapter 26: School Safety and Climate in Evolving Contexts,” in The School Services Sourcebook, ed. C. Franklin, M. Harris, and P. Allen-Meares, 3rd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, publication forthcoming); and Reynolds et al., “Current Approaches.”
44. See, for example, Astor, Benbenishty, and Watson, “A Conceptual and Large-Scale Empirical Examination.”
45. See, for example, Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, “Providing a Registry”; Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, “Fundamentals of SEL”; and Mayer and Jimerson, School Safety and Violence Prevention.
46. See, for example, Astor and Benbenishty, Mapping and Monitoring; Astor and Benbenishty, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate; R. Astor et al., Welcoming Practices: Creating Schools That Support Students and Families in Transition (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018); N. James and G. McCallion, School Resource Officers: Law Enforcement Officers in Schools, Congressional Research Service, June 26, 2013; National Association of School Psychologists, Policy Recommendations; and E. Tanner-Smith et al., “Adding Security but Subtracting Safety?: Exploring Use of Multiple Visible Security Measures,” American Journal of Criminal Justice 43 (2018): 102–19.
47. Astor and Benbenishty, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate; Counts et al., “School Resource Officers”; and Devlin and Gottfredson, “The Roles of Police Officers.”
48. S. Kostyo, J. Cardichon, and L. Darling-Hammond, Making ESSA’s Equity Promise Real: State Strategies to Close the Opportunity Gap (Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute, 2018).
49. American Institutes for Research, “National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments”; and National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, “ED School Climate Surveys (EDSCLS),” US Department of Education, safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/edscls.
50. See, for example, Astor and Benbenishty, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate; and Mayer and Jimerson, School Safety and Violence Prevention.
[Illustrations by Mike Austin]