Evidence-Based Legislation Will Best Protect Our Students

Evidence-Based Legislation Will Best Protect Our Students

After the Parkland high school shooting, school safety vaulted back atop the list of national priorities. Now, the issue has become even more urgent after the Santa Fe High School shooting in Texas last week. Student demonstrators have received a warm reception by the media and by a public that favors some kind of gun reform.

But while high schoolers declaring that “we don’t feel safe at school anymore” after Parkland, and that “we have a right to a safe education” can be powerful prompts to action, we have yet to see real change at the federal level. Congress did modestly strengthen the federal background-check system and drop prohibitions preventing the CDC from studying gun violence. But significant near-term action is unlikely, with President Trump’s School Safety Commission off to a slow start, and given the rise and rapid fall of popular concern over gun control — evident just two months after Parkland — is liable to be repeated after Santa Fe.

Meanwhile, there has been more action at the state level. On gun control, only a few states (Florida, South Dakota, and Vermont) have passed gun restrictions since Parkland, and due to heavily pro-gun state legislatures, action after Santa Fe is also unlikely. But the less-contentious issue of school safety is getting a lot of traction. Two-hundred pieces of legislation have been introduced in 39 states in the past year — half since the Parkland shooting. The most common address arming school staff, emergency response plans, school resource officer regulations, reinforcing building security, access to mental health services, and emergency drills.

After events like Parkland and Santa Fe, strong emotions, engrained opinions, and calls to action make immediate legislation feel like the first priority. But legislators should resist the urge to enact plans that sound good but aren’t supported by evidence. Instead, they should be responsive to how safe schools actually are, the cost of their proposals, and whether they will truly make schools safer.

Students understandably feel scared in the wake of traumas like Parkland and Santa Fe, and public officials must take these concerns seriously. But evidence deserves its due, too. And, counterintuitively, the data show that, nationwide, schools are safe and becoming safer.

The recently released 2017 Indicators of School Crime and Safety shows improved school safety across nearly every measure. In 2015, 3 percent of students aged 12–18 were victims of a crime at school, down from 10 percent in 1992; the percentage involved in fights at school was halved, from 16 to 8 percent. Additionally, the percentage of students reporting gangs at school dropped from 20 to 11 percent between 2001 and 2015. Measured outside the context of national tragedy, students’ sense of safety also improved, with the percentage “afraid of being attacked or harmed at school” dropping from 12 to 4 percent over 20 years.  

If school safety is improving in general, what about school shootings in particular? According to a forthcoming study by Northeastern University researchers, shootings too are on the decline, with the number of gunshot victims in schools dropping from 0.55 victims per million students in 1992 to 0.15 per million in 2015. (It is important to keep in mind that, while this study gives a general trend, it does not include recent events from 2016-18). By comparison, in 2015, the child motor vehicle fatality rate was 18.6 per million — making vehicular child deaths roughly 120 times more frequent than school-shooting injuries.

Consider the costs of some of the most popular policies. The most common — arming school staff — could be incredibly expensive. In Oregon, school insurance premiums jump $1,500 per armed staff member with safety certification and a military or a law enforcement background, and by $2,500 for those only certified. Arming just 10 percent of Oregon teachers could cost the state $7 million in insurance alone. Another popular option is the one Maryland took: requiring armed school resource officers in every school — at a cost of $15 million for the state and $98 million for local governments. These expensive actions may not work as hoped. In the case of Maryland, for instance, a school resource officer recently engaged, but did not necessarily stop, a school shooter. Even more significant, Santa Fe High School had two resource officers who confronted the shooter early. Worse, these solutions could pose additional dangers — as in Parkland where an armed teacher left a loaded gun in a public (not school) restroom for a homeless man to find and fire.

Of course, costs can be justified to improve safety. But hastily passed measures often look more like quick bets than prudent investments. Given the reality of limited funds, bets that don’t pay off end up wasting resources that could have been used for more prevalent, but less charged, issues. For example, national indicators show that bullying and drugs affect more than one in five students. Resource officers and armed staff can’t address these more commonplace issues the way school counselors can. However, there is only one counselor for every 482 students in U.S. schools, even though they might be a better, though less popular, bet for school safety. Additionally, these resources could have been used for evidence-based ways to protect students as much as possible from gun violence.

Hidden costs also come from layering new programs on already strained school staff. Busy administrators and teachers may not have the bandwidth to juggle carrying guns safely, or to develop more elaborate emergency plans and drills (over 90 percent already have such plans) without dropping other balls. These hidden costs are easy to overlook in the rush to pass legislation after a tragedy.

In the wake of Parkland and Santa Fe, all Americans should be concerned about school shootings. Even if these horrors are rare, no parents, teachers, or students want to risk having their school be next. Smart gun regulation could address the problem of gun violence writ large, but real leadership on school safety should begin by recognizing that schools are actually safer than they feel. Yes, we all want to keep students safe and to find effective solutions, but hasty actions will not accomplish this, and the status quo will continue. Lawmakers should use the time and evidence needed to find legislative actions that actually work without wasting scarce resources or straining existing ones. Our students deserve no less.

Nat Malkus is Deputy Director and Resident Scholar in Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Sofia Gallo is a Research Assistant at AEI.

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