Today’s high school students know the names of student activists from Parkland who rose to national prominence because of a mass shooting. They are old enough to have seen the faces of kindergarten children slaughtered at Newtown. And they have run through active shooter drills that have grown increasingly more elaborate.
So to student leaders, there’s little surprise in the results of the first state survey of public school students showing that on average students do not feel safe at school.
“Students are feeling this right on the heels of Parkland,” said Angela Qian, president of the Baltimore County Student Councils and a senior at Dulaney High School. It begins to make them believe it could happen to them. “How is my school different from all these schools?” she said.
Many steps have been taken to prevent outsiders from getting inside schools, said Ashley Cain, a Hereford High School senior and student leader in the county. Their fears come more from their fellow students, she said, and “the relative ease that a kid would have to bring a gun in their backpack.”
In the Maryland survey, students on average rated their physical safety a 3.5 and their emotional safety a 5.4, on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the best score a school could get. Even worse, students at hundreds of schools throughout the state gave their school a 1 for physical safety. About 400,000 public school students in grades five through 11 took the online survey last spring. The state field tested the survey two years ago, and looking at the first year results officials said they believe it is reliable and valid enough to be used to rate schools as part of an accountability system.
On the survey students also expressed very little belief that other students are friendly, caring and respect one another. Those questions were given a 3.1 on the scale.
State education officials noted the large gap between the perceptions of students and the teachers in their buildings, who feel far safer. On the upside, students gave good ratings for the relationships they have with their teachers, and they gave an average rating for the emotional safety they feel in their schools.
The survey underlines a growing local and national concern that students are being harmed by the intensive active shooter training now given in almost all schools in the state, and that it may be time to scale back the training.
A Maryland Active Assailant Preparedness work group told state education officials earlier this week that they don’t believe everyone in the school — all teachers and students — have to be part of realistic active shooter drills to be prepared in case of an emergency. Intensive training like that could be limited to the first responders in each school.
“What we are finding is that there doesn’t need to be simulated gunfire and people with realistic wounds to have effective training that would help them with a response,” said Sgt. Travis Nelson, a Maryland State Police officer who is on the work group. Currently, there is no evidence that students and teachers who receive the training can carry out the training in an actual mass shooting, he said.
Nelson said the work group will be analyzing the various training models that are available for schools this winter and will offer advice to schools by next spring on the most useful training available. When active shooter drills are done, he said, there should be extensive training for teachers and students beforehand so they know exactly how to respond.
“Students are feeling this right on the heels of Parkland ... How is my school different from all these schools?”— Angela Qian, president of the Baltimore County Student Councils and a senior at Dulaney High School
Students’ perception of the danger from an active shooter is different than reality, said Sheldon Greenberg, a Johns Hopkins University professor in the School of Education, and part of the university’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools.
“Schools are safe. No exception. No one can dispute it. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t schools with some safety issues, but they are about the safest place you can be in this country on any given day,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg said across the country, he has heard stories of kindergarten children, who come home to their parents after the training telling them they may die. While he supports the training, he said no teacher should be talking to a five-year-old about death.
After Baltimore County parents raised concerns about the training last year, the school system responded by making some changes, said April Lewis, executive director of the department of school safety. In elementary schools, the staff doesn’t use the word “shooters," deciding to use the term “bad people” instead.
“We don’t simulate weapons. We don’t simulate people being shot. We don’t have people running when they go through the drills,” Lewis said.
In both Baltimore County and Baltimore City schools, officials are trying to make students feel safer by focusing on student well being and adding more social workers and psychologists to buildings. Baltimore’s school system has prioritized student well being, under the belief that when students feel emotionally and psychologically safe they will be better able to learn, said John Davis, Baltimore’s chief of schools.
The survey data, he said, is not surprising. “We knew this ahead of time, it just backs up” what the city is doing, Davis said. The city has placed wellness coordinators in 40 schools. They work on the skills that help students understand who they are, how to control their impulses, and how to manage conflict and stress.
“I can see the difference in culture and climate in schools. I do think when the relationships are really strong in a school, you are going to feel physically safer,” said Davis.
Lewis said she believes student response on the survey may also be a reaction to the proliferation of threats that appear on social media. Even when a threat is deemed not to be credible, it can be posted many times by students making it appear that threats are happening more than they are, she said. There are also concerns about fighting in schools, she said.
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Contributing to the sense of unease is the rise of anxiety, depression and suicide among young people, said Melissa Schlinger, a vice president at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, in Chicago, a group that encourages the use of social and emotional learning in schools. "It is understandable that students may feel unsafe, if they see that “there may be kids who are troubled who may have not had their needs met are right in the classroom.”
Installing more metal detectors and video cameras and hiring more school police officers may be less effective in making students feel safe, she said, than creating a community where they feel they belong and are valued. In those environments, students are more likely to turn in the student who is troubled and has a weapon, said Schlinger.
“I would say mental, emotional well-being in students comes up all the time,” said Noureen Badwi, the student member of the Maryland State Board of Education. Students witness certain behaviors in their schools, and feel there aren’t enough resources for students to make them feel “everyone in their building is mentally well.”
Badwi said the survey results did not surprise her, but why students feel unsafe may be different in various schools. “I hope that people take the results seriously and we get to the bottom of why,” said Badwi.
Cindy Sexton, president of The Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said she believes a combination of active shooter drills and social media have combined to make students feel they aren’t safe.
“Students are aware of everything that is going on in every school. There is awareness of the fights that are going on,” she said. Today, fights are often videotaped and spread around a school community.
Sexton also said students need clear rules, accountability and consequences. “When students see other students who are disruptive, it makes for a more chaotic environment," she said. “I do think students want to see the discipline concerns addressed." But high school student leaders said they don’t believe a lack of discipline contributes to students’ fear.