June 17, 2022
Schools assess safety protocols after shootings, threats
Kenneth Duncan

With messages such as “how many more?” and “fear has no place in our schools,” students have joined other members of their communities throughout the country in protests against gun violence since the wave began 23 years ago. Most recently, the Bellingham March for Our Lives earlier this month followed similar events such as the 2018 rally shown here. (Image courtesy Ginny Broadhurst)

June 17, 2022
Schools assess safety protocols after shootings, threats
Kenneth Duncan

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The recent wave of shootings around the country, including the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, and local threats in Blaine have renewed concern over safety in the area’s schools. 

More than 300,000 students have been exposed to gun violence at school since the Columbine High massacre in 1999. Forty-one incidents have occurred in Washington, resulting in 42 deaths and injuries, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security K-12 School Shooting Database.  

Educators and lawmakers are examining their efforts to protect the well-being of both teachers and students — without damaging their mental health in the process — as they reckon with the threat of gun violence. 

Primarily, school districts are responding by “following the procedures we have, and making sure that we’re doing them appropriately, and performing them in the way they should be performed,” said Bellingham Public Schools Safety Support Specialist Russ Robinson. As for mental health support, “we try and get it out there to all of our students, that [it is available], not just after a drill, but anytime they need support and help with anxiety, stress levels, that kind of stuff.”

For BPS, serving a student body of nearly 12,000 means taking security precautions that go beyond the required lockdown drills. 

Cameras, automated door locking systems and other security tools are necessary, but their presence raises the risk of putting undue pressure on students — many of whom are still adjusting to in-person schooling, Robinson noted. 

“Physical security at schools is tough, in that you want kids to not feel like they’re walking into a prison every day,” he said. “That’s a huge part of the mental welfare of our students.”

Safety by design

A $12 million school bond issue passed in February by Bellingham voters includes funds earmarked for school safety improvements and an increase in on-campus mental health staff. 

Along with retrofitting existing buildings, new BPS facilities must be built following Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design guidelines specifying features such as electronic door-locking mechanisms, safety-first playground design and controlled building access points. 

“When they built these buildings back in the ’70s, they didn’t really have to think about school shootings,” Robinson said. “It’s unfortunate, but now we do have to think about that. So let’s design buildings that can help us.”

Vigilance in the islands

On the other end of the population-size spectrum is San Juan Island School District, which serves around 750 students.

Small districts need to be just as vigilant as larger districts about potential security threats, said district superintendent Fred Woods.

“Planning for school security can have its challenges no matter the size of the student body,” Woods said in an email exchange. “We are a very trusting community. However, this could also be a vulnerability. The campus for years has been so open and used by many different people and groups. We are implementing more structure to facility use in order to increase security.”

Lockdown drills

For years, lockdown has been the go-to method of protection against armed intruders on school grounds. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, 97% of American public schools perform lockdown drills. 

Despite their widespread use, there are no specific federal guidelines on how to perform these drills. And recent papers suggest that they may have a detrimental effect on the health of both staff and students. 

Generally, lockdown drills require students and staff to silently shelter in place. In Bellingham, staff must cover windows, lock doors and take attendance as unobtrusively as possible, as though to avoid contact with potential threats. San Juan schools perform the drills similarly, with specifics varying from building to building. 

Robinson said lockdown drills are a large part of Bellingham’s efforts to protect students against active shooter threats, with students willing to perform these drills because they see them as a necessary part of their lives.

“Students take it more seriously because, unfortunately, they feel they have to; they feel that it’s something they could use at some point in their life,” Robinson said.

It’s everywhere: school gun violence has occurred in every state, as reflected in an interactive map derived from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security K-12 School Shooting Database.

Before June 9, active-shooter scenario scripts were used in some locations. But those are now prohibited in Washington by House Bill 1941, to avoid the potential emotional damage they may have on students. 

Drills and stress

study by Everytown Research and Policy and Georgia Tech found that lockdown drills can lead to increases in depression, anxiety and stress throughout all grade levels. Concerns over death among students increased 20% on average in the 90 days following a lockdown drill. Another study noted a similar increase in anxiety over the same time period, alongside general emotional desensitization towards potential shootings.

These studies suggest that preventive measures be prioritized over the use of lockdown drills, including schools putting more focus on student outreach around accessible mental health resources and nonpunitive punishment.

As of 2021, Washington’s counselor-to-student ratio was one counselor for every 441 students, according to the American School Counselor Association — a far cry from the recommended 1:250 ratio the ASCA recommends, and 26 students above the national average of 1:415. 

Both Bellingham and San Juan districts see preventive care as key to maintaining a safe school environment, in conjunction with robust lockdown drill procedures. 

“In the last year we increased internal counseling services and utilized grant money to offer continued and professional therapy,” Woods said. “Our objective is to be preventive and not just reactionary.”

Classroom perspective

Modern school safety, while necessary, is taxing for those involved.

For Evan Fitzpatrick, a temporary worker at Ferndale High School, performing safety drills with recent shootings in mind can create a huge emotional weight for some students, while others simply see it as a necessary part of their lives. 

“The students that I’ve had are usually like ‘yeah it’s awful … shootings are awful, but what am I going to do?’ and go on with their day,” Fitzpatrick said. “Most of the kids handled it pretty well, but one girl came up and said she was developing a stress rash on her face.” 

Emily Creed, a substitute teacher who works in Blaine, Nooksack and Ferndale school districts, said students often misbehave during lockdown drills — not because they don’t see the importance of the drills, but because it makes them nervous. 

“The ones making the not-great comments are [doing so] because they’re uncomfortable, and they don’t know how to process that,” Creed said.

Apathy is common among students who may feel like they’re putting themselves at risk by being at school under an administration that they perceive as not doing enough to protect them.

“For the administration I’m working under, they do care. The other day during the threat a bunch of kids were like ‘oh, they don’t care, we’re still at school.’ They do care, they just don’t have the resources necessary to keep everybody protected at all times,” Evan said. 

Creed, who comes from a family of gun owners, believes that school safety is important but that the responsibility of dealing with potential threats has been unfairly forced upon educators. She thinks public policymakers should be the ones responsible for keeping students safe from gun violence, rather than leaving it up to schools and their staff.

Discussion around arming teachers has been ongoing for years, but the Uvalde shooting reignited the discussion, with both Ohio and Louisiana considering making it easier for teachers to carry a gun on the job. 

Many school shooters are students, Creed noted: “I don’t want to be put in a position where I have to shoot a student.” 

‘We need policy change’

The Washington Legislature passed Senate Bill 5078 and House Bill 1705, both effective July 1, banning the sale of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds and “ghost gun” kits — homemade guns that lack traceable serial numbers. This is on top of some of the strictest gun laws in the country, and being the first state to require universal background checks for firearm sales.

Washington increased the minimum age to purchase handguns or semiautomatic weapons to 21 in 2018, with those under 18 prohibited from owning a firearm at all.

While these kinds of preventive measures can help, Creed thinks the national conversation needs to shift away from forcing the burden of protection onto schools and their staff. 

“It’s not the responsibility of the teachers, it’s not the responsibility of the district or the principal,” Creed said. “It’s bigger. We need policy change, we need more funding both preventive and reactive.”

‘What if?’

Even with current policies and precautions, Bellingham’s Robinson believes that school safety is something that can’t be perfected. Instead, constant iteration and planning is needed to adapt for what is an often rapidly changing national landscape. 

“I think we are well-prepared. I’d like to be more prepared, and I don’t even really know what that looks like,” Robinson said. “Unfortunately, I always have this ‘what if?’ going on in my head, especially when things happen. And so I’m never going to be fully satisfied with how prepared we are.” 

On San Juan, the district evaluates its crisis management systems biannually, partnering with the county sheriff’s department to keep them updated against potential threats.

Even so, Woods observed, “no plan is perfect.” 

— Reported by Kenneth Duncan

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