Psychologist Abraham Maslow once observed that if the only tool you have is a hammer, it's tempting to treat everything as a nail. That's likely to be the approach Indiana's Secured School Safety Board will take when it makes recommendations to the governor next month. Among the seven men on the panel, six have backgrounds in law enforcement or security; one is an educator.
In advance of the recommendations, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Monday the Indiana State Police and Department of Administration will make handheld metal detectors available to all Indiana schools – one device for every 250 students. Earlier nods to school safety have come in the form of $35 million in loans for projects screened through the Department of Homeland Security and $5 million in grants administered through Homeland Security.
Indiana has been a leader in securing its schools since the deadly mass shooting in Columbine, Colorado, in 1999. We were the first state with a school safety specialist academy, requiring all schools to have a trained, certified safety specialist. And while metal detectors, security cameras, alarms, classroom locks and other hardware serve to fortify school buildings, the shooting at a Noblesville middle school in May is a clue that secure buildings don't always ensure student safety.
Should educators be expected to wave a metal detector over every student arriving at school each day? Is that even practical? Should active-shooter drills consume more instructional hours?
Isn't it time to broaden the approach to more than lockdowns? To begin to address security threats from within the classroom?
“We, too, feel we have dedicated a lot of resources to material safety,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “The shift needs to be made to more counseling and mental health support. (State) Superintendent (Jennifer) McCormick agrees.”
In February, McCormick responded to the Parkland, Florida, school shooting by imploring members of the General Assembly and the state's congressional delegation “to undertake efforts to address school safety.”
“(These) efforts must include passing policies which decrease risks, providing support for social and emotional programs to address mental and behavioral health, and approving budgets that increase resources,” she wrote. “School safety is a very complex issue and requires a multifaceted approach to solutions.”
Baker said the Department of Education is hearing from school leaders that they would like more flexibility in spending money allocated for school safety and not just limit the funds to equipment purchases.
“We've spent 20 years securing the buildings – how do we reach the children inside?” he said. “I think you will find a lot of people on board. With funding already in existence, is there a way to use it for those needs?”
“Fear at school can contribute to an unhealthy school climate and lead to negative school behavior,” wrote Tami Silverman, president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute, in an April op-ed. “Students who feel unsafe at school are more likely to miss days of class, and students who witness school violence are more likely to experience health problems, social and emotional difficulties and poor academic performance.”
The governor's continued focus on school safety is appreciated, but more dollars spent on metal detectors seems like a misplaced priority when schools must charge families for textbooks. Creating a safe school climate requires the kind of approach encouraged by the state superintendent, including more counselors and school psychologists to work with troubled students. Teachers need the time and resources to watch and listen for threats.
When those tools are in place, Indiana schools will be not only the safest, but also the best, places for learning.