Debate over school safety should be based on fact not fear

During the just-completed regular session of the Legislature, the House of Delegates approved a version of the comprehensive education reform bill that included a provision requiring a law enforcement officer for every school in the state.  The House approved the amendment 82-17, so there was significant bipartisan support.

The bill eventually died, so it’s a moot point for now. However, lawmakers will return to Charleston in a few weeks for a special session on education. It’s possible that, given the support in the House, the school security provision could re-emerge this year or sometime in the future.

Naturally, not many politicians want to be pegged as being “against safer schools.” However, lawmakers should think long and hard before they go down this road.

Some schools already have police officers in the building. The state’s Division of Justice and Community Services uses federal grants to help pay for about 100 Prevention Resource Officers in 39 counties.

However, requiring an officer in every school and paying for it with state dollars would be very expensive. It’s estimated it could cost as much as $40 million annually to put an officer in all 680 West Virginia public schools.

School shootings are horrific, and they garner a tremendous amount of media coverage, but they happen infrequently.  As Education Week reported last August, “School shootings remain statistically rare, and contrary to popular perception, school homicides haven’t trended upward in recent years, federal data show.”

According to a March 2018 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, “When instances of homicide and suicide of school-age youth at school were combined, there was approximately one student homicide or suicide at school for every 1.9 million students enrolled.”

Education Week reports that by many measures, schools have become safer, not more dangerous. “Rates of student victimization at school—of both violent and nonviolent crimes—have decreased every year in recent decades, federal data show, and children are more likely to be victims of crime outside a school than inside.”

Children are at much greater risk riding in a car than sitting in a classroom. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “for children five to 19 years of age, the most injury deaths were due to being an occupant in a motor vehicle traffic crash.”

The shock of a school shooting, regardless of where it occurs, is enough to scare children and parents alike. However, Education Week cites federal data showing the percentage of students who reported “being afraid of attack or harm” at school has “dropped over the past two decades, declining from 11.8 percent in 1995 to 3.3 percent in 2015.” Education Week also reports that psychologists and safety experts agree that rarely does a child “just snap” and decide one day to bring a gun to school to harm classmates.  Typically, there are warning signs.

That’s a better argument for more counselors, nurses and mental health experts at school rather than a police officer.  Notably, the failed education bill included an additional $24 million for just those kinds of wrap-around services.

The desire for safe schools is universal, and there may be instances where having a police officer in a school helps protect children, while serving as a positive mentor to keep children out of trouble. However, the debate over how to achieve the safest schools possible should be driven by facts and not irrational fear.

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