Once again, a rise in school shootings has led to heightened awareness, and increased attention to school safety and violence prevention — this time for the 2023-24 school year.
"This awareness will continue to rise," said Paul Timm, a school safety expert who often advises school administrators and director of education safety at security company Allegion. Timm is also a senior advisor to Safe and Sound Schools, a national nonprofit school safety advocacy group and resource center formed by parents whose children were killed in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"And whether it's the incidents of violence that fuel that or whether it's just the fact that we're getting better as time goes by … we're all mindful of the fact that we really hope school is going to be safe this year," said Timm.
As school administrators dive into the 2023-24 school year, experts suggest three school safety trends experts to look out for.
Reactionary demands and measures
With the increase in school shootings, safety experts have noted a coinciding increase in impulsive school security purchases, plans and policies on the part of school leadership — partly in response to more school safety products and solutions on the market.
Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, said that he has noticed "an onslaught" of advocates, activists, and vendors "bombarding school leaders" with various and sometimes ineffective products or solutions. "Superintendents and principals tell us they are overwhelmed with questionable and conflicting information, and often do not know who to listen to or believe," said Trump in an email.
There is also a demand from parents to invest in such products and services in the wake of high-profile incidents like The Covenant School shooting in Tennessee in March and the Uvalde massacre in May 2022.
"Too many schools are pandering to parents by providing shiny objects and other visuals to provide something they can point to in order to tell parents they are doing something," said Trump.
Clear backpack policies, safe rooms and new school security tech investments are just some of the measures that became popular in the 2022-23 school year and may continue to gain traction in the upcoming one, said school safety experts.
"Things like that satisfy demands from those who are reactionary," said Timm. "And so that's what happens when we get reactionary: We start grasping for anything that can make us feel safe. And a lot of times, that becomes the product of the day."
Additionally, an increase in concerns about student behavior and the influence of social media add to "the kind of threat or level of urgency," he said.
Pushback against evidence-based approaches
While there is little evidence that physical security measures like metal detectors and arming school staff are effective in preventing school violence , evidence-based preventative measures such as providing mental health supports and social-emotional learning are shown to benefit schools by creating a positive school climate and improving student behavior.
"There is a growing interest in improving school safety by building supportive school communities to protect against the perpetration of school violence," according to a report on creating safe and supportive schools released this month by the Learning Policy Institute.
However, recent pushback against social-emotional learning has made implementing that approach challenging for school leaders, said Marc Zimmerman, co-director of the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, whose research focuses on adolescent health and resiliency. Parents who say SEL shouldn't be in schools argue it takes away from academics and teaches children skills that should instead be taught in the home.
"When you're dealing with people's kids, and you're dealing with school, it becomes very politicized," said Zimmerman. As such, he said, implementation for evidence-based measures now requires "not only how do we do this, but how do we handle the environments in which we're trying to do these things?"
All hands on deck strategies on the rise
School security experts have also noted an uptick in holistic approaches to school safety, including more attention toward community violence intervention. The strategy integrates finding solutions to school violence into the broader issues of fighting community violence.
"School violence is not just what happens in the walls of the school," said Zimmerman. "So what happens in somebody's neighborhood often comes into school and vice versa."
Other school security experts also noted schools adopting a more comprehensive approach to school security — including but not limited to safety tip lines, teacher training and partnerships with other players in the school's broader community.
Even funding agencies seem to be swinging in that direction, added Zimmerman.
The U.S. Department of Justice, for example, offered a competitive grant in 2023 "to address gang and gun violence, based on partnerships" among community residents, local government agencies, community-based organizations and others.
"So the idea of community violence is part of this future school safety approach," said Zimmerman. "And I think the future is now."