LISTEN — Class Disrupted S4 E15: How Hardening Schools Could Harm Students

LISTEN — Class Disrupted S4 E15: How Hardening Schools Could Harm Students

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Class Disrupted is a podcast on education that occurs every two weeks, featuring conversations between author Michael Horn and Diane Tavenner from Summit Public Schools. They engage with educators, school leaders, students, and other members of school communities to explore the challenges facing the education system during the pandemic and discuss the way forward. To access every episode, you can bookmark our Class Disrupted page or subscribe on popular podcast platforms like Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or Stitcher (new episodes released every other Tuesday).

In response to tragic school shootings across the nation, schools have implemented various security measures. Michael Horn and Diane Tavenner argue that these measures may have a detrimental effect on mental health, potentially contributing to violence in schools and society. The point is not to suggest that schools should ignore security measures, but rather to emphasize that these steps require deliberate consideration. Schools need to be intentional in the choices they make and understand the reasons behind them.

Listen to the episode below, and a complete transcript follows.

  • Class Disrupted S4 E15: The Potential Negative Effects of School Security Measures

Diane Tavenner: Hello, Michael.

Horn: Hi, Diane. I’m delighted to be sitting here with you, recording this episode in person in California. These opportunities to record podcasts face-to-face happen only once or twice a year, so I truly cherish them.

Tavenner: I feel the same way, Michael. I never want to take being together in person for granted again. It’s truly remarkable how technology has allowed us to connect every week during the pandemic and beyond, but there’s nothing quite like being physically present. Three years after the start of the pandemic, it feels like things are picking up speed again. I don’t want to lose my appreciation for these moments.

Horn: I completely agree. We started this podcast virtually due to the pandemic, hoping to engage in dialogue that encourages people to think differently about schools in the post-pandemic era. We want to seize this opportunity to create educational environments that enable individuals to succeed and, as your book puts it, leave school equipped for an increasingly complex world.

As our audience will soon discover, the topic you’ve chosen for today’s episode is challenging. It exemplifies the complexity of our world and underscores the potential benefits of reimagining our school structures in response to these challenges.

Tavenner: Michael, I’ve been compelled to discuss how schools are responding to tragic mass shootings for some time now. I want to clarify that I don’t want to focus on the incidents themselves because others have already covered that extensively. However, it feels important to address the impact of these events on our schools, communities, and everyone affected. Yet, I hesitate because the tragedy is so immense, and as everyone knows, it is far from over.

Horn: I understand where you’re coming from, and I’m not sure I have much to add to that either. Expressing grief through social media or email seems inadequate compared to the immense loss experienced by the affected families and communities. As a father of two young children in elementary school, every school shooting I hear about is devastating. It’s not just the tragedies themselves that concern you, Diane, but also how we navigate and respond to them.

Tavenner: Absolutely, and the key word there, Michael, is "choose." I’m troubled by how we react to these tragedies. In our polarized society, there is a surprising consensus surrounding the belief that children should be safe in school. Everyone agrees on that. No parent should ever have to send their child to school and worry that they may never return due to gun violence in the classroom. We are aligned on this issue, but the alignment quickly dissipates when we discuss how to ensure the safety of our children and teachers at school.

Horn: From our standpoint, it appears that this is a discussion where you and I can truly make an impact. I agree with the direction we’re heading in. We won’t delve into the specific laws and actions that society should take in this conversation. However, it’s clear from the evidence that the issue hasn’t been adequately addressed. While it’s often noted that children are generally safe in schools compared to other areas of society, a closer look at the data on the number and frequency of attacks reveals a problem that is spreading across the country.

What struck me as we considered having this conversation is that schools have a significant role to play in this debate. I hope that our discussion will empower others and contribute to creating a more peaceful and healthy world.

Tavenner: You’re absolutely right, Michael. Schools not only have a role to play in this debate, but in the absence of a unified vision, strategy, and set of policies to tackle this horrifying reality, I believe they…and when I say they, I mean me too…are unconsciously aligning themselves with a vision and strategy that we may not agree with. Let me be more specific. There are individuals in our society who argue that guns aren’t the problem, but rather it is the people, particularly those with mental health challenges.

According to this viewpoint, our efforts should be focused on addressing the mental health needs of individuals, as these challenges can lead to acts of violence. There are two approaches to achieving this. First, we should provide more support for mental health. Second, we should "harden schools" to increase safety in case of an attack. It’s this last aspect, Michael, that requires our attention. Because as we both know, schools are increasingly implementing security measures, and the scientific evidence suggests that these measures may worsen mental health challenges and possibly create new problems.

Horn: This is a crucial statement, and it is the focus of our discussion today. To facilitate this, let’s begin by clarifying the term "hardening" as it pertains to schools. It has a specific meaning in this context, and I want to ensure that we all have a common understanding. When people refer to hardening schools, they are referring to a wide range of measures. These measures include safeguarding entrances and windows, implementing locked doors not only at the front but also in classrooms, installing metal detectors and armed security personnel, deploying cameras throughout the premises, conducting active shooter drills, and in some cases, arming teachers. This is just a glimpse, but it provides an idea of the breadth of what we’re discussing. There is now an entire industry dedicated to helping schools implement these measures. According to Isabelle Hau at Stanford, 95% of schools currently control access to their buildings, compared to 75% in 2000, as per Department of Education statistics. Additionally, 80% of schools now use security cameras, up from 20% in 2000. These figures demonstrate the extent of the increase. From the perspective of schools and parents themselves, these actions appear highly rational. We want to ensure the safety of our children. Similar to how we enhance security at airports, we are making schools more secure. Any superintendent who fails to harden their schools and experiences an incident would face severe criticism from parents and the community. I’ll pause here for now, as I’ll have more to add later, Diane, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.

There appears to be little doubt about the implementation of hardening measures in schools. This topic is worth discussing because the changes that come with hardening schools are essentially changes in the design of schools. As listeners may know, our podcast focuses on school design and how intentional redesign can lead to desired outcomes. Interestingly, most of the design changes supported by research on how people learn and develop are quite challenging to embrace and implement. This is why we constantly discuss these topics on our podcast.

For instance, we often talk about the use of time in schools, such as the extended summer break, as well as the organization of subjects. We have covered these topics extensively in previous episodes. However, when it comes to the design changes driven by hardening, they are being implemented quickly and without the usual design processes that we emphasize, which involve rigorous evaluation and consideration of the impact on schools.

Host: This is a crucial and nuanced point. I want to highlight it because I know you’ve been hesitant to bring it up. If people aren’t paying close attention, they might accuse you of not caring about student safety. This might be one reason why these hardening changes are being readily adopted. Just imagine you’re a school board member, school administrator, or a teacher.

You regularly witness school shootings unfold, and you notice that the media often focuses on a particular safety issue that the school could have addressed better, like an unlocked door or a drill that wasn’t followed. As a school leader, you receive the message loud and clear that you need to do whatever you can to ensure the safety of your students. I’m not dismissing that concern, but what you might be missing is the existing research on what truly makes schools safer.

I don’t want to dwell on this point for too long, but when we discussed discovery-driven planning in previous episodes, we emphasized the importance of conducting basic research to test the validity of your assumptions in a new plan. In relation to this, I must say that the research on the effectiveness of these actions in preventing school shootings seems inconclusive at best.

For example, a systematic review of the literature conducted by Randy Borum and his colleagues at the University of South Florida found that "school administrators have made numerous attempts to enhance safety through the use of surveillance systems, metal detectors, and access-controlled devices, although there is little empirical research available to evaluate these practices." They couldn’t find convincing research, but there are other studies that also demonstrate limited efficacy. Of course, there may be some measures that make sense in certain communities while others have negative consequences.

Tavenner: Absolutely, Michael. People naturally respond quickly by implementing hardening measures. That’s just how people react because if something were to happen at our school and we had not done everything in our power to prevent or mitigate the impact of a shooting, we would be held responsible. As educators and individuals, that’s not something we can live with, so we choose to harden our schools. It’s unfortunate to be in this position as school leaders. Society is divided, and we lack a coherent policy that supports our efforts. The public, parents, teachers, and students are all scared and angry, and we’re confronted with these challenges every single day.

Horn: This is the crux of the matter, and it’s what Clay Christensen would refer to as an anomaly in the theory of hardening schools. The theory suggests that if we make schools more secure, we can prevent shootings. However, it didn’t work in this case, and it may not work elsewhere, as some research reviews indicate. But before we delve into that, let’s first acknowledge that it didn’t work in Tennessee. It has taken us some time to address this issue, but we wanted to establish empathy and present the facts, as this is the conversation we want to have today, Diane.

When we hastily harden schools, we bypass the regular design process. We should be analyzing and evaluating the evidence for these design changes and considering whether they not only prevent threats but also align with our desired outcomes for students. To clarify, I want to provide a specific example to illustrate this point. Diane, since you think about this frequently, I would appreciate it if you could give us an example that is relatable to everyone.

Tavenner: Let’s consider the practice of locking doors. One of the most fundamental and widely recommended safety measures for schools is to keep every door locked at all times. The idea behind this is that if the doors are locked, the shooter won’t have access to the premises, right? Michael, this includes both the front entrance and all internal doors. There is only supposed to be one entrance to the school. There are also recommendations regarding fencing, limiting access, and maintaining a single entrance. As I explain this, many people might wonder, what’s the big deal about locking doors?

Isn’t it a simple action that could potentially save lives? Perhaps, but let’s consider what it feels like to be in a school where every single door is kept locked all the time, day after day, year after year. Based on my experience in schools, I can tell you that firstly, parents don’t have keys to the school, Michael. In fact, teachers often have keys to specific doors only. A limited number of individuals possess these keys. Consequently, many people throughout the day are unable to gain access to a door when needed.

When a student leaves the classroom to use the bathroom or go to the office, someone has to physically open the door for them upon their return. To enter the bathroom, someone has to unlock it, or the student can only use it when it’s unlocked and supervised. If a teacher, administrator, or parent wants to visit a classroom, they must either unlock the door or knock and wait for someone to allow them in. You understand the situation, Michael. Movement is restricted. Moreover, it is often perceived as disruptive and unsafe, both by me and others. Whenever I discuss this with people in schools, they usually say, "Yes, it’s a bit inconvenient, but we need to prioritize our children’s safety."

I have yet to encounter someone who has deeply considered the long-term effects of what may seem like a relatively small change. However, when I examine the science of learning and development, I can’t help but wonder what happens to a developing brain that spends 10 to 15 years in an environment where it receives a clear message every day: you are locked in for your safety, your movements are limited for your safety, and you should be cautious and suspicious of anyone who enters your classroom or space because they might pose a threat. If you’re late or have different needs that don’t align with scheduled movement times, you are locked out of your learning spaces.

Note: The text has been rewritten to improve readability, coherence, and usage of natural language while maintaining the essence of the original content.

If you simply decrease your daily calorie intake by even 100 or 200 calories, and consistently do so over time, it will have a significant impact on your weight and overall health. The same applies to sleep, water intake, and various other factors. So, why would we assume that there wouldn’t be consequences for individuals who experience being locked in and out on a daily basis for extended periods of time? Psychological research shows that even short-term experiences of restricted movement and confinement can have detrimental effects on individuals.

When you consider the additional factors at play, it becomes undeniable that there will be effects on how an entire generation perceives the world, other people, their own freedom of movement, safety, and even their sense of self. I apologize for going on a bit of a rant, Michael, but please interrupt me if necessary.

Horn: No need to apologize. I believe this is the crux of the matter. I want to touch on a few other points as well, but let me conclude this thought. If we genuinely want to improve people’s mental health and reduce incidents like mass shootings, then schools have a crucial role to play. Let’s empower them, not as an additional burden on top of their existing responsibilities, but as a fundamental aspect of their purpose.

I think that’s the underlying theme in everything you’ve just mentioned. We’ve previously discussed how schools can help foster resilience, well-being, empathy, attachment, and self-esteem among students. However, we must also acknowledge that there are things schools can do that harm students’ mental health. We have a choice between supporting and strengthening mental health or causing damage. By making the wrong decisions, we risk undermining trust within our communities.

In fact, as I’ve read through the literature, I’ve come to realize that trust and the ability for individuals to speak up and seek help are vital not only in preventing disasters but also in providing the necessary support for individuals to recover and thrive. This is what I wish for every individual. I want to emphasize, once again, that I’m not suggesting there is a definitive answer. It often depends on specific circumstances rather than blindly following best practices.

Certain measures may work in one community but not in others. However, the important thing is that we carefully consider the evidence and make informed, deliberate choices. I believe that’s also your point, Diane.

Tavenner: Absolutely, Michael. Another point we consistently make is that this is not an easy task. None of this is easy. Being a school leader or someone responsible for leading schools has never been easy, but it seems to be increasingly challenging with each passing day. The last thing I want to do is add more pressure to those already engaged in this critically important work. I know firsthand the weight of everything we’re discussing and more. It’s likely not what any of us signed up for, but it’s where we find ourselves. What’s essential is that we remain aware of our circumstances and the choices we make, as none of them are inconsequential.

Michael, we have a mutual friend who had three nieces present in a school building during one of the devastating school shootings in Texas. Her family and community will never be the same, and those are her own words. Two of the ten victims that day were substitute teachers who didn’t have keys to locked doors because they were substitutes and couldn’t access the safe spaces created by those locked doors. Although this is just an anecdote, it highlights the lack of meaningful evidence supporting the effectiveness of many security measures in preventing school shootings.

Imagine yourself in the position of the student survivors. How did it feel for them to return to school after experiencing a shooting, only to be treated as a threat? We are treating our children and anyone who enters schools as dangerous. We are aware of the negative effects of living in a constant state of fear and vigilance. It affects our physical and mental well-being, as well as the fabric of our community and society.

As a school leader, I don’t want to overlook the fact that the decisions I make in the name of safety may actually be exacerbating the mental health challenges that contribute to school shootings. These decisions also strain the support systems in our communities, which are crucial for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. While we may acknowledge these impacts, we cannot simply ignore them.

Indeed, I agree wholeheartedly. I want to add a few more points. For those listening, if you are not convinced at this point, there are additional reasons why school communities take the actions they do, and why we should exercise caution. The inclination towards hardening schools is deeply ingrained within the education system. Schools historically used to operate as closed communities, segregating students from the outside world. Julia Freeland Fisher, in her book "Who You Know," argues that this approach existed for over 120 years. However, the trend has shifted, with parents now working for their children rather than the other way around. While societal changes have occurred, it is worth questioning the wisdom of isolating students within a locked-down environment that disconnects them from the wider world.

This approach limits their development of social connections and opportunities, as Julia’s book suggests. It raises questions about the desired outcomes of our education system. If we truly aim to provide students with opportunities for success and not just focus on their mental well-being and self-fulfillment, then the relationships they build outside of school matter greatly. Intentionally connecting students to the outside world is crucial. The expeditions you organize are a conscious choice made to expose students to various career possibilities, allowing them to understand the nature of different professions and how they align with their own interests and strengths. It is also an opportunity for them to develop a network that provides access to opportunities and individuals. Currently, the connections students have in the outside world are somewhat reliant on chance, but schools have the power to change that. This approach can enhance academic performance, provide a sense of purpose, and improve mental well-being and self-esteem. It has the potential to transform lives and open doors to new possibilities.

Once again, I emphasize the importance of making carefully considered judgments. It may not be necessary to lock doors, but implementing certain safety measures to prevent weapons from entering schools is essential. I suggest undergoing a process of discovery to achieve the desired outcomes while mitigating potential risks and making deliberate trade-offs.

Tavenner: I completely agree with you, Michael. Your points bring something to mind for me. I may have mentioned this before, but it’s very relevant to our discussion and the reason why I wanted to have this conversation. My good friend Antonio Saunders often talks about the distinction between unconscious and conscious leaders. One of the distinctions he highlights is that unconscious leaders spend their lives fighting against injustice. Consequently, they become experts in the skills necessary for a world they frankly don’t desire—a world characterized by conflict, anger, and violence.

On the other hand, conscious leaders dedicate their lives to designing and creating the world they want to live in. They become experts in the skills needed for the world they aspire to. I want both your children and mine to grow up in schools and communities that believe in their potential, nurture them, and help them become productive members of society. Even as a school leader, I have the power to shape the environment and experiences of the children entrusted to my care. Michael, I’m grateful for this conversation. I’m glad we could have it face to face.

Although this might seem like a sudden shift in topic, considering what we’ve just discussed, I’m always curious about what you’ve been reading, listening to, or watching lately. Maybe we can wrap up the dialogue here and you can share something with me.

Horn: On a lighter note, perhaps. Well, don’t laugh, but besides watching basketball, I’ve been reading Harry Potter. I must admit, I’m quite late to the party since it was first released when I was in high school, I believe—the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I had this attitude of not wanting to read it, so I consciously avoided it. But then, when I had kids, I thought, "Okay, maybe I can read it aloud to them."

Sadly, they didn’t let me read books aloud to them. They found it a bit scary. But it gave me the chance to jump in and read it for myself. We just finished the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and we’ll be starting the second book soon. Despite my tardiness, my family and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tavenner: You’re quite late indeed. It was a long time ago since the first year of Summit for me—I relied on Harry Potter to get through that year. I would read it before bed, and it transported my dreams to Hogwarts and the magical world of Harry Potter, rather than the concerns of running a school. I did lose a few hours of sleep that year. Currently, I’m reading Atomic Habits by James Clear.

As you like to say, I’m also late to the party with that one, as it has become a highly popular book. It’s a handbook that teaches how to achieve the life you desire through small, consistent daily habits. I found it captivating and practical. It affirms the areas in my life where I excel in maintaining good habits while highlighting areas where I can improve and create better systems. It’s a quick and worthwhile read.

Horn: I highly recommend it. Before we conclude, I want to express my gratitude to all of you for tuning in and staying with us during this important conversation about reimagining schools and their role in the lives of individuals and communities. We’ll see you next time on Class Disrupted.

Michael B. Horn is dedicated to creating a world where everyone can pursue their passions and reach their full potential. He does this through his writing, speaking engagements, and involvement with various educational organizations. He has authored several books, including the acclaimed "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns," and his most recent release, "From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)creating School for Every Child." He is also a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank.

Diane Tavenner serves as the CEO of Summit Public Schools and is also a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She has dedicated her life to education, innovation, and is the author of "Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life."

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    Oscar Cunningham is a 41-year-old educational blogger and professor. He has been writing about education for over 10 years, and is known for his expertise on online learning and digital media. Cunningham is also a frequent speaker on these topics, and has given talks at a range of universities around the world. In his spare time, he also enjoys playing the violin and running.

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