Why isn't there a Clery Act for K-12 education?
A disgruntled high school teacher last Tuesday walked into the Episcopal School of Jacksonville, Fla., and gunned down the principal in her office with an AK-47 before turning the gun on himself, according to news reports.
Head of School Dale Regan had fired the suspect, 28-year-old Shane Schumerth, that morning from his position as a Spanish teacher at the school. Schumerth, who had no prior criminal record, returned that afternoon toting a guitar case that contained the weapon to commit his crime.
This Florida school shooting came eight days after a student at Chardon High School in Chardon, Ohio, brought a gun to school and shot and killed three of his fellow students in the cafeteria.
Whenever a school shooting makes national headlines, the event inevitably generates questions about school safety and security in K-12 public education and whether more could have been done to prevent such events. One such question is why are this country's colleges and universities held to a higher standard when it comes to safety and security than its elementary and high schools?
Unlike in higher education, which has the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to report crimes on campus and allows the U.S. Department of Education to levy serious fines on schools that fail to act in a timely manner to an emergency, there is no federal legislation that mandates K-12 schools to report incidents of crime, according to Paul Timm, president of RETA Security, a school security consulting firm in Illinois.
What regulations do exist at the K-12 level come from the states, Timm told Security Director News. All states require K-12 schools to have an emergency response plan, and many—but not all—require them to report crimes, Timm said. "The problem is there's no teeth behind it," he said. "There's not a lot of mandates, and in places where there are mandates, they're not enforced."
One reason for the discrepancy between the attention received by security in higher education versus security in K-12 public schools is because the risk inherent on a college campus—where the campus is often part of an urban environment, and drug and alcohol use are a constant concern—is higher than the inherent risk in an elementary school, Timm said.
However, Ken Trump, a consultant with 25 years of experience in the K-12 school safety field, gave SDN a more pessimistic argument for why colleges and universities put more emphasis on campus safety and security. "Security has become a marketing tool," he said. While public K-12 schools have a "captive audience," colleges and universities are in competition with each other to attract students, Trump said. Because of that reality, proving to parents of prospective students that their campuses are safe becomes part of the sales pitch. "If school administrators today in any setting—K-12 or colleges and universities—are not wise enough to see that actually doing something about school safety—not just talking about it, but doing something meaningful—is not a marketing tool, then they're really shortsighted on these issues," Trump said. "Because parents will forgive educators if their test scores go down, they're much less forgiving if something happens to their kid that could be prevented."
When a headline-grabbing moment does turn the focus to K-12 security, there is an increase in funding and attention from the public and, therefore, lawmakers. However, in most cases it turns out to be nothing more than peaks in a "roller coaster" of public awareness that in the long run has not created long-term solutions to the problem of securing American schools, Trump said. "What happens in K-12 is what happens in public safety in general. We have a roller coaster of public awareness, public policy and public funding when it comes to public safety in this country, and that applies to schools, as well as homeland security and other public safety issues," Trump said. "We legislate by anecdote at both the state and federal level. We fund by anecdote."
Once the media frenzy has subsided and the issue retreats from the headlines, the urgency is lost and over the years the funding is reduced, Trump said.
Case in point: It was nearly 13 years ago that the Columbine school massacre shocked the country. At the time, there was plenty of political grandstanding, money being thrown at school violence prevention and emergency preparedness programs, and school-based police officers, Trump said. "That lasted several years, but in the last five or six years we've seen the elimination of funding for school resource officer staffing and school resource officer training," Trump said. "We saw the elimination two years ago of the only K-12 school emergency planning grant in the federal government—the U.S. Department of Education Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools grant."
Because there are no mandates with teeth for K-12 schools to provide statistics about school safety, what stats are available to the lawmakers who make funding decisions are unreliable, Trump said. Take the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which says there were 33 school-associated violent deaths at U.S. schools between July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2010. That report "is based on a hodgepodge collection of a half dozen or so academic surveys, not on actual incident-based statistics," Trump said. "In general, federal statistics grossly underestimate the extent of school violence; public perception tends to overstate the extent of school violence. In reality, it exists somewhere in between, but in real hard numbers no one knows exactly where that 'somewhere' is."
Timm agreed. "I would never try to discredit that organization."—referring to the National Center for Education Statistics—"In terms of what they had available to them, I think they did a good study," Timm said. "But in terms of the reality of crimes, it's inaccurate. I can't prove that their statistics on violent crimes or deaths might not be true, but I will tell you this: Crime in general is so underreported it's laughable."
As a result, the lawmakers making funding decisions concerning K-12 safety are forced to base those decisions on flawed data, which contributes to the up-then-down cycle of funding. "It's a vicious cycle," Trump said.
To break that cycle, school administrators need to make a commitment to school safety that is impervious to the headlines, Timm said. If that commitment doesn't come naturally, one method Timm suggests to is to include a safety and security component in the evaluations of school administrators, which would create an incentive for them to take an active role in their school's security rather than pawn it off on facilities managers, as often happens.
"For too long, security—whether in higher education or K-12 or any arena—has been looked at as a necessary evil," Timm said. "What we're trying to do is elevate the standing so that it receives the proper respect that it deserves, because any safe learning environment is built on a foundation of effective safety and security practices."