An Evidence-Based Road Map for School and Community Safety

Sandra Williamson
Girl with backpack holding a parent's hand

On May 24, Uvalde, Texas joined a growing list of communities—Columbine, Colorado; Parkland, Florida; Newtown, Connecticut; and too many others—where gun violence in schools has led to a tragic loss of life. These tragedies spark a debate on how we can reduce violence in our schools, in our communities, and among youth. Frequently, this conversation is driven by politics and ideological beliefs and focuses on finding a single solution to the problem.

Here is the truth: There is no magic answer to reducing violence in our schools and in our neighborhoods, but there is an evidence-based road map for what to do—and it doesn’t involve “hardening our schools” with metal detectors, police, and more weapons.

Three, Evidence-Based Levels of Intervention

View the evidence that informs the Interdisciplinary Group’s plan in the book chapter (PDF): “The Scientific Evidence Supporting an Eight-Point Public Health-Oriented Action Plan to Prevent Gun Violence” (Flannery et al.).

Printed with permission from the book, Keeping Students Safe and Helping Them Thrive: A Collaborative Handbook on School Safety, Mental Health, and Wellness (Osher et al.).

The Interdisciplinary Group on the Prevention of School and Community Violence, which includes 19 leading experts on youth violence prevention and school safety, recently updated its “Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America,” originally drafted after the shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. (Editor’s note: David Osher is a member of the group). It outlines a multi-layered, comprehensive public health approach to addressing gun violence, including three levels of intervention:

  1. Universal approaches promoting safety and well-being for everyone;
  2. Practices for reducing risk and promoting protective factors for persons experiencing difficulties; and
  3. Interventions for individuals where violence is present or appears imminent.

The specific, evidence-based interventions the experts are recommending include a ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips; universal background checks on gun purchases; a requirement for schools to assess school climate and maintain safe and positive school environments; investments in community- and school-based mental health professionals; and a collaborative focus on de-escalation strategies, reducing exclusionary discipline, and promoting effective threat assessment.

(It should be noted that the gun safety framework developed by a bipartisan group in the U.S. Senate includes some of these recommendations, although all are key to creating safe and supportive learning environments. It is unclear what a final version of the bill will look like and, as with all policy, funding and implementation will be key to its success. )

This comprehensive approach is neither novel nor untested. In fact, for decades, AIR has studied and helped communities implement this multitiered approach, which prevents problems from developing or escalating and includes identifying and supportively addressing early warning signs. This includes publications AIR produced for the Departments of Education and Justice in 1998 and 2000 that informed a follow-up book, Safe Supportive Successful Schools, Step-by-Step, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. These strategies were developed by an expert panel and implemented by the grantees of the Safe Schools; Healthy Students (SS/HS) Grant Program. (We further explored these strategies in a 2018 book, Creating Safe, Engaging, Equitable Schools: A Comprehensive, Evidence-Based Approach to Supporting Students.)

The strategies outlined in these publications recognize that there isn’t a single approach. Violence among young people is caused by a multitude of factors and will require a multitude of solutions.

Over the last 18 years, our teams at AIR have supported these comprehensive approaches in our technical assistance and evaluation work, including partnership with SS/HS grantees and to communities that received Safe and Supportive School Grants from the U.S. Department of Education. We’ve seen this approach work around the country.

For instance, after a school shooting in 2008, Cleveland Metropolitan School District asked us to conduct an audit and use our research expertise to identify what could be done to prevent another shooting and improve safety, mental health, and connectedness. We recommended and helped implement a phased, multi-year approach grounded in efforts to foster strong social emotional learning and conditions for learning. Cleveland education leaders listened to teachers, students, and community members, and avoided quick fixes and simple solutions. They worked together, collected and used data for continuous improvement, and remained committed for the long term. The results have been positive: Students have stated that they feel safer and are more engaged; and academic indicators, such as graduation rates, have continued to improve.

What About ‘Hardening Schools’?

After the tragedies in Newtown, Parkland, Uvalde, and elsewhere, the call for more security, more police, and even arming teachers is almost understandable; people want to do whatever they can to keep students safe. Certainly, schools should take measures to ensure security, but the evidence doesn’t support the hardening of our schools.

For instance, there is no evidence that arming teachers makes schools safer—in fact, it may lead to a false sense of security—and there is evidence that more guns means more deaths. Additionally, punitive, exclusionary, segregating, and hardening discipline policies are ineffective or harmful, exacerbate disparities, and undermine equitable access to opportunities to engage and learn. In fact, the evidence base that supports the Interdisciplinary Workgroup’s Call for Action cautions: “…in the interest of one type of safety—physical safety—schools may undermine other aspects of safety. Safety is more than physical safety; it includes emotional safety, psychological safety, and identity safety, and involves effects over a child’s life course.” and raises concerns that it could exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline.

Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s leadership understood this. Instead of just relying on “hardware” to make schools safe, leaders invested in “Humanware.” They based their decisions on research evidence and avoided symbolic actions. Instead of arming teachers, leaders equipped educators with tools to better instruct and connect with students. Instead of hardening schools, they strengthened the capacity of schools to teach students and address their mental health needs through systemic districtwide approaches to social emotional learning, conditions for learning, and student support.

As Cleveland’s experience shows, keeping students safe and reducing school and community violence is a multilayered, complex issue, and addressing it will take time. The good news is that there are research-based steps we can take, starting now.