“Softening” Schools as a Violence Prevention Strategy

Date: March 22nd, 2018

Bob Reeg

I don’t know about your community, but in mine there have been a slew of community dialogues about school safety in the wake of the February 14 mass shooting of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

I took the opportunity to listen-in on one of those conversations. The forum I attended was organized by students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. Three students from the high school participated on the panel, as did three Members of Congress.

The “stars of the show,” in my humble opinion, were neither the Members of Congress (gasp!) nor the students (I know, heretic!), but the school resource officer and school psychologist.

“Why is that?” you ask. Quite simply, because neither of these school professionals endorsed “hardening” of schools as the primary solution to violence, despite this being the quick response that some policymakers and parents promote in the wake of a school shooting. (“Hardening” of schools refers to security features such as perimeter fencing, metal detectors at entrances, fire-armed personnel within the school.)

Rather, these professionals encouraged positive behavioral approaches. The school psychologist asserted that steps to promote psychological safety of students was equally important to physical safety. And the school resource officer, when asked what was the top thing he would do if he were “king for a day” to improve school safety, responded that he would create a “warm, nurturing culture” where students “supported their differences” and felt motivated and equipped to “look out for one another.”

That doesn’t sound so “hard” to me. I’m all on board for “soft schools”! And I’m not alone.

The national organizations representing elementary school principals, second school principals, school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers, and school resource officers released in 2013 A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools. There’s a lot of “soft” in this framework. The “hardest” these respected organizations get is acknowledging that limited building security measures are appropriate. Quoting from the framework: “Any effort to address school safety should balance building security/safety with psychological safety. Relying on highly restrictive physical safety measures alone, such as increasing armed security or imposing metal detectors, typically does not objectively improve school safety. In fact, such measures may cause students to feel less safe and more fearful in school, and could undermine the learning environment.”

This week is the annual observance of National Youth Violence Prevention Week (#NYVPW), a public awareness initiative to demonstrate the positive role young people can have in making their school and community safer, and the role that everyone can play in preventing youth violence. It is also the week of March For Our Lives in which youth and those who support them will take to the streets of cities and towns across America to demand that their lives and safety become a priority and that we end gun violence and mass shootings in our schools today.

Both observances provide occasions for conversation with our youth, parents and other caring adults, school leaders, and school professionals about strengthening (or is it “softening?”) the social-emotional climates of their schools. Because doing so is critical to reducing aggression and violence in schools, whether with a firearm, a fist, or a ferocious word.

I hope to see a “I Support Soft Schools” sign at the March For Our Lives. If you spot one, snap a pic for me!

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About the Author

Bob Reeg, MPA, CVA, Program Development and Public Policy Consultant, is an accomplished nonprofit organization program director & public policy analyst and advocate, and an emerging social purpose entrepreneur.