When Adam Lane became principal at Haines City High School eight years ago, there was little to stop an attacker from entering the school, which sits alongside orange groves, a livestock farm and a cemetery in Central Florida.
“You could drive right up, walk right in the front office,” Mr. Lane said.
Today, the school is surrounded by a 10-foot fence, and access to the grounds is carefully controlled via specific gates. Visitors must press a buzzer to be let into the front office. More than 40 cameras monitor key areas.
New federal data released on Thursday offers insight into the many, growing ways that schools have amped up security over the past five years, as the country has recorded three of the deadliest school shootings on record, and as other, more routine gun incidents on school grounds have also become more frequent.
About two-thirds of public schools in the United States now control access to school grounds — not just the building — during the school day, up from about half in the 2017-2018 school year. An estimated 43 percent of public schools have a “panic button” or silent alarm that connect directly with the police in case of emergency, up from 29 percent five years ago. And a stronger majority, 78 percent, equip classrooms with locks, up from 65 percent, according to survey data released by the National Center for Education Statistics, a research arm of the U.S. Education Department.
In a sign of how much security is a part of regular school life, nearly a third of public schools reported holding evacuation drills nine or more times a year.
Some practices that have stirred the most debate have also grown but are less widespread. Random metal detector use was reported in 9 percent of public schools, with daily use reported in 6 percent. And while many schools have campus police, just 3 percent of public schools reported arming teachers or other nonsecurity employees.
The data was collected in a survey of more than 1,000 public schools in November.
Even as schools spend billions of dollars on security, the number of gun incidents at schools has only grown. The latest tragedy unfolded last week in Virginia, where the police said a first grader, just 6 years old, brought a gun from home and used it to seriously injure his teacher.
Gun Violence in America
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A Growing Tally: Gun violence is a persistent American problem. A partial list of mass shootings this year offers a glimpse at the scope.
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Last year, more than 330 people were fatally shot or wounded on school grounds, up from 218 in 2018, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database, a research project that tracks instances in which a gun is fired or brandished on school property. The overall number of incidents — which can include cases where no one was injured — also increased to more than 300, up from about 120 in 2018, and as few as 22 in 1999, the year of the Columbine High School shooting, when two teenagers killed 13 people.
The uptick in school gun violence comes amid a broader increase in active shooter incidents and gun deaths in the United States. Overall, schools are still quite safe.
School shootings are “very, very rare,” said David Riedman, the founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database.
His tracker identified 300 schools with gun incidents last year, a tiny fraction of the nearly 130,000 schools in the United States. School shootings account for less than 1 percent of the total gun deaths suffered by American children.
Yet, the growing toll has put more onus on schools to not only educate, feed and counsel children, but also protect them from harm. Best practices include simple solutions like locking classroom doors and limiting access to schools.
But experts say many “deterrent” measures — like metal detectors, clear backpacks or having armed staff members on campus — have not been shown to reliably prevent shootings. Other tools, like security cameras or panic buttons, may help interrupt violence in the moment but are unlikely to forestall shootings.
“There is not a lot of evidence that they work,” Marc Zimmerman, co-director of the National Center for School Safety at the University of Michigan, said of many of the safety measures. “If you press a panic button, it probably means somebody is already shooting or threatening to shoot. That is not prevention.”
Increasing security can also come with its own risks. A recent study found that Black students are four times as likely as students of other races to be enrolled in high surveillance schools, and that students at those schools can pay a “safety tax” in academic outcomes and suspensions because of those measures.
The most effective time to stop a school shooting, experts say, is before a gun ever gets to campus.
Because most school shootings are carried out by current or recent students, their peers are often best positioned to notice and report a threat, said Frank Straub, director of the Center for Targeted Violence Prevention at the National Policing Institute, who studies averted school shootings.
“Many of these people engage in what’s called leakage —they post online, they’ll tell a friend,” Mr. Straub said. He added that teachers, parents and others should also look out for signs: a child becoming withdrawn and depressed, a student drawing doodles of guns in a notebook.
“Fundamentally, we have to do a better job of recognizing K-12 students that are struggling,” he said. “And that’s expensive. It’s very difficult to prove what you prevented.”
Most school shootings, though, are not planned, mass attacks.
“The most common occurrence — throughout history and throughout the last couple of years as things have dramatically increased — is there are fights that escalate into shootings,” said Mr. Riedman of the K-12 School Shooting Database. He pointed to national upticks in shootings, and said the data suggests that there are simply more people, even adults, bringing guns to school campuses.
Christi Barrett, the superintendent of Hemet Unified School District in Southern California, knows that no matter what she does, she cannot fully eliminate the possibility of risk for each of the 22,000 students and thousands of employees in her sprawling district, which spans 28 schools and nearly 700 square miles.
But she has worked to be proactive, starting several years ago with a locked door policy for every classroom.
The district is also in the midst of transitioning to electronic door locks, which she hopes will reduce any “human variable” or fumbling with keys in a crisis. “If there is an intruder, an active shooter, we have the ability to lock down everything instantaneously,” she said.
School officials also had rolled out occasional, random metal detector searches in some high schools, with mixed results.
The devices sometimes flagged innocuous items, like school binders, while missing weapons when the devices were not in use. And though she said the searches did not focus on any groups, she acknowledged broader concerns about the disparate impact school surveillance can have on students of color.
“Even with it being random, that perception can be there,” said Dr. Barrett, whose district is largely Hispanic, with smaller populations of white and Black students.
Now, every middle and high school in the district has a more universal system, which is designed to specifically detect the metal in firearms. “Every student goes through it,” she said, adding that no guns had been identified so far this year.
To address students’ mental health, she said, there are counselors in every school. And a software program flags when a student types trigger words — like “suicide,” or “shooting” — on district-issued devices to better identify children who need help.
She said terrifying mass shootings at schools in recent years — in Parkland, Fla., Santa Fe, Texas, and Uvalde, Texas — did not spur the security upgrades, so much as reaffirm them.
“It was more of a reinforcement of, ‘Let’s not get lax,’” she said.
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