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How School Security Has Changed Since Columbine, And How It's Stayed The Same

Mark Humphrey
AP Photo
Students arriving at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky embrace an unidentified adult on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 1997.

Seventeen years ago, Bill Bond was the principal at a small high school in western Kentucky that was rocked by a school shooting. It happened before the term "school shooting" had even entered the national conscience.

The Columbine massacre was still a year and a half away when a 14-year-old freshman at Heath High School entered the lobby in Dec. 1997 and opened fire, killing three fellow students and wounding five more. The shooter eventually surrendered to Bond, who says it all happened "right in front of him."

"People are going to want a solution" to prevent shootings like at Heath or Marysville-Pilchuck High School last week, Bond said. "But there's not a perfect, simple solution there. The solutions are hard."

'Not Only Hardware, But Software'

Credit Mark Humphrey
Mark Humphrey
Bill Bond, pictured during his tenure as principal of Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, talks with students arriving at school in December 1997, the day after a freshman shot and killed three fellow students. Bond is now a school safety specialist.

Yet the advice from school security experts about which solutions are best have shifted in the 12 years since Bond left Heath High School to become a safety specialist at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Though school security experts say keeping intruders and weapons out of schools remains an important objective, safety consultants are beginning to advocate for even more proactive training for staff and students. Better planning, they say, can not only help students and staff respond to on-campus shootings, but foster a school climate that has a better chance of preventing the shootings in the first place.

"Whenever you look at dealing with school crime prevention, you have to look not only hardware, but software — the people side, the networking, the communications side," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center.

Security Cameras, Metal Detectors & Bag Bans

In the years after Columbine, national statistics show that the number of public schools locking or closely monitoring their building doors has risen significantly, though relatively few schools have added metal detectors or required clear backpacks on campus. Only one in five schools used security cameras in 1999. Today, three out of five schools use them.

But if Columbine spurred many schools into taking such "visible security measures," Bond says the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School underscored the limitations of these measures. During the 2012 shooting at the Connecticut school, Adam Lanza forced his way past security systems designed to keep intruders out of the building, Bond points out.

"No matter what you do, someone can always override that mechanism or defense you put up. [Sandy Hook] changed that thinking," Bond said.

Climate And Culture Change

Metal detectors can be effective in rooting out entrenched, ongoing problems with students bringing weapons to school, Bond says. But someone wanting to do harm could then simply target the line of students waiting for screening.

While experts say there is some value to concrete security measures, Bond says the best way to prevent school shootings is much more abstract: create an environment where students feel safe enough to share information, whether it's with a teacher or a police officer trained to work in schools.

"A school resource officer represents a different kind of person than, say, your normal teachers," Bond said. "A lot of times a kid might trust the school resource officer with information or feelings or what's happening to him. The reason they would is because they feel like [the officer] could be effective in preventing it."

"In another case," Bond added, "they might trust their art teacher with that kind of information. In another case, they might trust their band teacher or their football coach, or their English teacher."

Bond is careful to say he has no indication that staff members at Marysville-Pilchuck High School weren't creating an environment that fostered trust. He says the actions of shooter Jaylen Fryberg, who killed two classmates and wounded three others before turning the gun on himself, can't be easily explained.

'The Touchy-Feely Stuff The School Counselor Does'

The notion that creating a school climate where students feel safe as a means of preventing violence is not in itself new.

After Columbine, "some of the climate and culture stuff did happen," said Amanda Klinger, director of operations for the Educators School Safety Network, "but it was relegated and segmented to the world of school psychologists. It wasn't integrated as part of planning from day-to-day operations. It was, 'Oh, well, that's the touchy-feely stuff that the school counselor does. They are concerned about bullying, they're concerned about climate.' It wasn't the main dish that schools were dealing with. That was the security part."

Klinger says schools still have a lot of work to do. She says they need to work with teachers to develop lockdown procedures that are more developmentally-appropriate for young students. Klinger also says schools need more comprehensive plans in place for assessing threats and for responding to a wide range of crises, not just school shootings.

Instead, more school leaders are demanding trainings for responding to active shooters, Klinger says. She also fears they have too many opportunities hear from consultants with law enforcement and military backgrounds who discuss ways to make their schools more secure.

The idea that schools ought to deepen focus on school climate and response planning has been "gaining momentum since Sandy Hook," Klinger said, but "it's not on equal footing with the law enforcement and security orientation."

Klinger says the law enforcement perspective is important in both preparing for and improving responses t0 school shootings. But she was especially irked by a recent panel on cable news that she says featured three law enforcement officers but no teachers.

"Law enforcement expertise is important," Klinger said, "but educators have to have a seat at the table."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.