As part of the WPSU series on School Safety efforts in central Pennsylvania, we invited a group of parents, students and educators to discuss school safety, what it means and what we should be doing to get there.
Lori Bedell moderated the discussion. Bedell teaches rhetoric at Penn State and is part of Deliberation Nation, which guides students through discussions, and she serves on the State College Area school board.
Lori Bedell: Welcome. Thank you all for your willingness to participate in this conversation. The goal of this conversation is that we hear about each other’s experiences and values, so that we can come to an understanding of the perspectives that you all hold. We also understand that we’re all here to listen and learn from one another, so with that, if we could just go around the table, and if you could all introduce yourselves and let us know why you care about this issue, what brought you here to have this conversation. Why don’t we start with you, Jake.
Jake Matchock: Hello, my name is Jacob Matchock. I’m a senior at Moshannon Valley High School. This issue is very important to me, because guns have a lot to do with our world right now and the world that’s developing, and I think it’s an issue at hand that needs to be spoken about. There’s many opinions about it, and I care deeply for everybody’s opinion.
Matchock was one of the participants, along with Kyra Gines, a junior at State High; Martha Sherman, a mother of two elementary school students in the State College Area School District and a criminologist on the faculty at Penn State; and John Zesiger, superintendent of the Moshannon Valley School District. During a nearly two-hour discussion, they talked about both the idea of ‘hardening’ schools or trying to make them safer with things like metal detectors and armed guards and ‘softening’ schools or providing counseling services and mentoring to students who need it.
Moderator Lori Bedell noted that statistically speaking, school is one of the safest places for a child to be.
Lori Bedell: Statistically, mass shootings happen mostly away from schools. Restaurants, for example, have a much higher rate of mass shootings. So, given that we have many more serious threats outside of school, why are school shootings so front and center in our conversations these days?
John Zesiger: This is John. I’ll start, I think. Speaking as parent, most of those other locations that I go to with my children, I’m with them. So, as a parent, I kind of know what’s going on to some extent. But, every day parents entrust us that they’re going to put their child on the bus or drop them off at our front doors and then be away from them for a 7 ½ or 8 hour day, where they’re not sure exactly what’s going on and they don’t have the comfort of being able to turn over and touch and see and talk to — and so that elevates it on the parent side of things. I think that’s why it comes to the forefront in schools — because there’s that separation between the family and the child, and you’re entrusting your child to someone else and you’re not seeing them all day, every day.
Kyra Gines: This is Kyra. I would say that because, as you say, it’s so statically low, it’s something we’ve accepted as a safe place, and when an entire society of people set their expectations on a safe place, for someone to go and break that expectation, it becomes sensationalized, because it’s not where it should have happened, especially if we look at a situation like Parkland. You’re looking at suburbs, you’re looking at the picture of safety.
Moderator Lori Bedell noted there are arguments for two very different ways to achieve school safety: hardening and softening schools.
Lori Bedell: Hardening really entails things like metal detectors, more armed guards, school resource officers, even in some places, the idea of arming teachers. The thinking is that if a person does come into school intending to do harm, they won’t get very far and the potential for losses will be reduced. Softening schools, on the other side of it, entails providing more psychological and social support, and an emphasis on empathy and social and emotional learning. The intention of which is to make school a less hostile, more proactive space where the acting out of violence is less likely to happen in the first place. I’d like to talk about each of these, and I want to start with the concept of hardening schools. How do we feel about this option? I’d like us to see both the potential benefits and the costs and concerns. So what is there to like potentially about the approach of hardening schools?
Jacob Matchock: This is Jake. I agree with hardening schools. I think that adding more protection and safety, is in my opinion, it’s helpful. It’s more safe for the school. Metal detectors, security guards. I just feel like the more people that are involved, the more that’s involved, to make sure every student’s safe, I think that’s a great idea. I think that teachers being armed is something that could be looked into, with a rigorous course for that. I think that’s something that needs to be taken very carefully and approached, but I think when you have a teacher who is armed, that offers another support system if someone was to break into school, it offers someone other than one security guard to protect the students that are there.
John Zesiger: This is John. Obviously, I want our facility to be as secure as it can. But, I don’t want to be the state correctional facility. That’s not my goal. I really hope as a district that we focus more on some of those preventative measures, some of those psychological and counseling and social work, and working to build our families and communities that are struggling a little bit. Because, I think that’s really the solution.
Martha Sherman said she could see the benefits of some ways of ‘hardening’ schools that aren’t as obvious to children, such as glass that is sealed to be safe against bullets.
Martha Sherman: This is Martha. I want my children feel like it’s a safe place. And, for younger children, I don’t think bringing in the idea that it might not be makes it feel safer for them. They already come in with the assumption that it’s safe, so when you provide things like metal detectors or an armed guard or something, they’re going to say, ‘Why do we need that? Why do we have that? Why is that there?’ That then opens the idea that maybe it’s not as safe as they thought. For younger children at least, I don’t find that it would be that reassuring to have those things available to them. From a criminologist perspective, there isn’t any evidence at this point that it’s particularly effective. It’s almost impossible because it’s so rare to find that it’s really effective, but we do know there are some potential psychological effects, particularly of activities like shooter drills. So, I think you have to be cautious.
Lori Bedell: Do you think it’s a deterrence at all for someone who might be thinking of committing some sort of violent act?
Jacob Matchock: If there’s more security there?
Lori Bedell: Uh huh.
Jacob Matchock: Yeah, I do think that. If you are someone who’s thinking that, and you know that there are several security guards, that there’s great security cameras, locks on all the doors, a teacher may be armed You’d have so many obstacles to get to the students, that it would be extremely challenging.
John Zesiger: This is John. I think there’s definitely some different perspectives. State College here, you have university police, state police, you have township police, you have all kinds of police officers around. In Houtzdale, I have a state police barracks about 30 miles away, and that’s it. So where the response time in State College could be less than a minute, the response time in Houtzdale could be 20 minutes. And then when parents do have concerns, I love, I love when parents call me. What I hate is when no one says anything, and I have no clue. (but if parent calls, etc.)
The group also discussed “softening schools” and the role of students’ home lives.
John Zesiger: This is John. I do believe that relationship building, whether it’s with a trusted adult, whether it’s with a student, I think that’s the No. 1 way that we solve a lot of these problems is through relationships and making people feel like they’re valued. There’s a lot of homes, unfortunately, in our community, it’s not a great environment for a student. To bring them in and say, ‘Trust an adult,’ or ‘trust a peer,’ when they have no reason to trust an adult or trust a peer — it certainly makes it difficult.
Martha Sherman: This is Martha. I wholeheartedly agree with that. I think that starting young is probably the most important aspect of the softening. You take a kids who’s come from a tough family background and they’ve been in it for 16 years, and then you say, ‘Hey, there’s a counselor here if you want to go talk to them.’ They’re not going to go talk to them. So, starting young is important. Parents are far greater danger to children than schools. So, even if your school is safe, even if you have every security measure in place, those kids still need something that can help them with their emotional well-being.
The group also discussed challenges, aside from money, when it comes to making schools safe, secure and welcoming.
John Zesiger said that as superintendent of a small, rural school district, he sees a lot of staff turnover, including teachers.
John Zesiger: When you have a new fourth-grade teacher or two new fourth grade teachers every year — I have about 10 to 18 percent turnover annually between retirements and people moving on to other districts — it’s tough to build those relationships. We struggle, in a smaller district, to have some uniform people that are there throughout a child’s experience.
Lori Bedell: As we wrestle with thinking about this, what effects are you concerned with?
Kyra Gines: This is Kyra. So I worry about when someone goes ‘mental health,’ it’s going to become: Who has mental health issues? Who’s dangerous? Who can we put out. Oh, you’ve been diagnosed, you’re not part of this group any more. Or, we’re going to be watching you because we know you to have this situation, so we’re going to make this officer follow you around or something, I don’t think that would happen; it’s a bit extreme. I just worry about a further stigmatization with no attempt at educating everybody about the complexities of mental health before bringing it into the conversation as, ‘Oh, we can control that,’ because that’s not really the case.
Lori Bedell: I think that in the broader culture what we have seen is the want to blame mental health as the culprit for the violence that we’ve seen. What I hear, and tell me if I’m wrong, is the potential for a slippery slope. That, once a student gets diagnosed with something then the microscope is on that person, which could be dangerous. And, what I heard you, Martha, say, is educating fully from the start, which would go hand in hand with softening schools, about what mental health is, and that mental health is a range of things. It’s not just something to be stigmatized and fearful of, is a good way to be thinking about this.
John Zesiger: This is John. I know we’re talking about schools here a lot, but that stigma is really community-based. That conversation of it being a positive is something we’re working through, it needs to happen at the bank, at the grocery store, at Walmart, at wherever it is you happen to go. Schools certainly get centered because we have such exclusive ops to do some things. But when you talk about a rural school district, there is not a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a nothing in my community. My families have to travel to Clearfield, Altoona, State College. I have a family with no transportation. All of a sudden, all those barriers we were talking about are right there again. It’s not a barrier to the school. It’s a barrier to the family, it’s a barrier to access to those resources.
John Zesiger thinks legislators need to realize school districts need more community and school-based access to resources. The group also discussed unintended consequences of either hardening or softening schools.
Kyra Gines weighed in.
Kyra Gines: As with anything with consequences I’ve experienced as minority in the area, it tends to disproportionately affect us. For hardening in particular, there are studies proving here and in an inner city, when you bring in this punitive environment, teachers will pick on somebody they can pick on. So for around here, it can look like the minority kids in the area. I know we’re on radio, so people can’t see I’m the only person of color in the room, but this is not rare for me. … I just worry when we talk about safety. Safety for one person is not safety for everybody.
Kyra Gines also pointed out how one student might think a school police officer is great, but another student’s experience with law enforcement can affect their perspective.
Kyra Gines: If this other student has just seen a string of police brutality on the news, and now you send them to school, what do they see. They see an officer, and they’re not going to feel that same safety, because they know they’re at risk.
Martha Sherman: This is Martha. Even just diversity in the way you’re raised. My children — we don’t have water guns. It is not something they are permitted to see, have, play with, pretend — none of it. So, when they see a police officer, they’re scared because they have a gun. They think that person must be a bad guy or there’s something wrong. So, they’re going to have a different reaction just because they have a different background and a different family life.
They also talked about the idea of arming teachers — something one Pennsylvania school board voted to allow. Facing legal challenges, the board suspended the policy. That case is now tied up in court.
Jacob Matchock: This is Jake. I’ve heard both sides. There are some teachers who say, ‘We’re just not cut out to have a gun. We just can’t do it.’ And then, there’s other teachers, an avid hunter. They’ll be like, ‘You can put a gun in my hand, and I feel like I could be very helpful to the situation if that was ever to occur. I think that, as a teacher standpoint and student standpoint hearing that, teachers should definitely have that option to say no to that. Some just aren’t cut out to hold a gun, that’s just how it is. And there’s others who could benefit.
Superintendent John Zesiger said he and others are not trained to work with guns.
John Zesiger: We’re trained and paid to be educators. That’s what we do. I think when the Penn States of the world have concealed carry and hand combat training as part of the teacher preparation program, then you may be in a different point, but there’s nothing in our system now from the time you decide you want to teach all the way up to the time you’re superintendent and retire, that really prepares you in any capacity for that functionality. We’re educators.
Martha Sherman: This is Martha. Am I the only one who thinks it’s insane that we have to have a conversation about teachers shooting intruders? We don’t talk about arming doctors or arming the guy that works at Chik-Fil-A. But those places are more dangerous than the schools. As a high schooler, I had a smart mouth and I had some hot-head teachers, so it’s really good they were not armed. This is not an environment, with all the emotions and the stress and hormones. It just doesn’t seem like the kind of place you would want to even have a discussion about putting a gun in their hand.
John Zesiger: This John. And the sad thing is, if we had this whole discussion here on school safety, and that topic was not mentioned, the listening audience would think that we missed something.
Martha Sherman: Sure, sure.
John Zesiger: Which is even more scary.
Kyra Gines: This is Kyra. I don’t think taking such a fearful, reactionary measure is going to do us any good, especially one that’s going to be so last resort. I would like to see maybe if my teacher went through a training where they learned martial arts, or they went through a training ’50 different ways to incapacitate somebody with a stapler.’ I’d go, ‘Whoa, I feel safe.’ Because that’s already in the classroom. That’s survival skills, and that’s what we need.
I don’t need to see a handgun in my teacher’s hand. And, I will agree with Martha, I mouth off sometimes, and I really don’t want to see some of those teachers — that bias as well — I don’t want to see those teachers with the capability to hurt me beyond what they already can.
Moderator Lori Bedell said the fact that communities are asking whether they should arm their teachers shows there’s been a huge cultural shift. As mass shootings happen regularly, she said, one question is whether the society has accepted that as a norm.
Lori Bedell: Is this just the way things are going to be? Do we have other choices, and if so, how do we get to them? What do we think about this culture? Are we OK with it? How do we make a difference if we’re not OK with it?
Martha Sherman: This is Martha. We have friends from Canada. There was a lockdown at State High recently, and she had never had to worry about it before because she didn’t live here. And the fact that, that’s the difference for you is that you’ve moved to the land of opportunity where we have to talk about school shootings. So, there are obviously options and choices and ways that things can be done that that’s not the concern, but changing a culture is difficult.
John Zesiger: This is John. We’re talking about shootings. There’s so much more that plays a factor. Even just down to boyfriends and girlfriends who abuse one another. Again, I think it’s where that softening part is so crucial, because the armed school guard only takes care of one small facet of what a school district is focusing on in a day and a year. There are so many other violent actions that those measures don’t even address in any capacity. It’s really important to make sure we’re wide enough in our scope of, what are they types of negative behaviors that schools are dealing with (and society in general, but schools in particular in this conversation) and how can we use our resources to address the bulk of those.
Martha Sherman: This is Martha. I think there’s a tendency to do the things that just feel like they’re going to help and to do the things that will make parents feel good and to do the things that we’ve done in the past without using the tools of research to see what will work, what are the consequences of this. Is this going to be helpful? Is this not going to be helpful? Has anyone else tried it? What was the outcome? So that you’re not using your resources shooting blindly —pardon the phrase, the pun, trying to fix it. Politicians, they’re supposed to represent the people. If the people say they want armed teachers, does that means it’s the right thing? That it’s going to be effective? Sometimes you have to be willing to look at the evidence we have and make a decision, not just what makes people feel better, what they want. In the Parkland incident, they had the armed guard that didn’t go in and the shooter had been through the active shooter training, so they taught him how to not get caught that way. So it’s not always effective just because it feels good.
If you’re just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. We’re talking with a group of parents, students and educators about what can be done to make schools safe. Lori Bedell is moderating the discussion.
Lori Bedell: What are the roles and responsibilities of communities and individuals outside of the schools, in helping schools do what they can to soften schools? To provide kids with the sorts of resources that will prevent th em from getting to a place where violence of any sort — self-inflicted or inflicted upon others — happens? So parents, kids, legislators, community members — take your pick.
Martha Sherman: This is Martha. I would say, don’t gripe about your taxes, because the schools need the money. It’s going to something important. If we need to pay teachers a little more, so there’s not turnover, or if we need to hire a psychologist because there’s not one in your town. Those funds are crucial to keeping this environment safe that you want for your children. If you want the school to keep them safe, you have to provide the resources to do that.
John Zesiger: This is John. One of the reasons I said I’m always excited when I have students at the table, is because the best defense against all of this is them. They know more about what’s going on with peers and their classmates, and where we may not see every student every day, every class period, some student is seeing them. If I could change one thing about society in general — It’s hard enough to go to school as it is — I would make students respect one another. If I could train all of our students, it would just be to come say something. If you have gut feeling, that something just isn’t right or I’m a little concerned, if they would just come say something, it would go a long way to moving things in the right direction.
Jacob Matchock: This is Jake. It goes as simple as a little compliment to someone else, and just spreading kindness. It really can do a big part in that. At our school right now, we’re doing a sticky-note campaign, where you write a compliment on a sticky note and give it someone else. It’s so simple as that. Something so small can really make a difference. And that’s where it starts with the students. People grow up in schools, everyone grows up in school. And if you have bad experience at school, that’s when problems occur in real life. If your school experience is better and you have people who support you in school, and you can build connections. That just sets you up for better life.
The group also discussed the idea of active shooter drills, what age group they’re appropriate for and whether they help make students feel safer or more fearful.
Kyra Gines: This is Krya. I do advocate for the active shooter drills I would like to know that in situations, I know where to go, I know how to help others, and I know I can get out because I’ve been trained to do so, because I’ve been informed about my exits, because we’re not just fish out of water.
Jacob Matchock: This is Jake. Just agreeing with you on that because every drill that we’ve had, I’ve taken a positive from it. I’ve had it in several different classes, and I’ve gotten to hear the teacher that’s in that class, and I’ve gotten to hear their side of it. They have a set plan that they follow. I feel safer knowing there’s a plan and everyone is accounted for. I feel like it’s a good thing for us to know that if something was to happen, there’s a way to prevent it and a way to be safer. And, I’ve gotten positive … It’s good for the students to hear those plans and hear that they’re cared about.
Martha Sherman noted she’s OK with shooter drills for high school students, who already know shootings do happen. But, she doesn’t think elementary students should do them.
Martha Sherman: For me, the chance of a school shooting is so rare, the chance of psychological damage that you’re intentionally inflicting on my child by having an active-shooter training is not rare. (Not that they’re trying to harm my children.) But you know that’s a very real consequence for something that rarely occurs that I’m not comfortable with.
Kyra Gines compared it to teaching a child how to swim, so they can respond if they ever get knocked into water.
Kyra Gines: Maybe you’re not telling the 2-year-old, ‘You might drown, so here’s swimming.’ You are telling them, ‘This is a skill we need to have, so here’s how to swim.’”
Martha Sherman agreed. She said she would draw the line at having her child hide under the desk while saying there’s an active shooter.
Martha Sherman: But, if you say, ‘In an emergency, these are the places we need to go that will be safe. You need to be sure you’re listening. You need to be quiet. You need to follow your teacher.’ It gives teachers an opportunity to practice it as well and know which kids they’re going to be struggling with and which kids they can kind of lean on.
But John Zesiger said there need to be drills for elementary students. Active shooter drills, he said, are staff only. But crisis drills, even if they’re not called that, are imperative for all students.
John Zesiger: This is John. Even from the standpoint of the students’ comfort level, even from the teachers’ comfort level, to know, I have 26 kids I have to get out of here. What does that look like? What does it look like in a panic mode? It’s not just everybody, ‘OK, everybody on the blue line, single file, no talking.’ Because that isn’t how any crisis is going to come about. Not that we want to say there’s a shooter and you’ve got to do something, but having drills that are spur of the moment, that aren’t announced, that you block exits, that you take students and hide them away, so whatever your protocol is for acknowledging you have a student missing or an extra student, all of those things are taken into accountThat has to happen in real time, in real drills, with real students there.
Martha Sherman: This is Martha. We’ll probably just not have to agree on it. Because there is plenty of evidence of the psychological damage of creating crisis situations for children. There is not plenty of evidence that these drills do anything in these situations. It’s too rare for me to be willing to put my kid in that risk.
Lori Bedell: Are you thinking about anything differently and what will you take away from this conversation? Any or all of those things.
Martha Sherman: This is Martha. One thing that we talked about that was not a new idea to me, but I tend to forget when thinking about school safety is the difference in accessibility of police resources. I’ve always lived in place where you call and they come. And not only do you call and they come, but you call and you trust that they are going to be helping you, which is also not the case everywhere. So, having to allow for a lot of flexibility by community, I think is an important part of the conversation. That there’s not going to be a blanket solution for every school, every school district.
I think my take away would be that the softening helps outside of school. Hardening schools helps the school, that school. But softening schools helps everyone, because those mental health issues, those depressive symptoms, that anger and resentment doesn’t just stay with the child when they’re at school. It’s everywhere. So, the same people who are resentful at school are resentful outside the school, and then going to work and engaging in a workplace shooting. So, having that assistance in the school helps long-term and helps everyone in the community.
Lori Bedell: Thanks for doing this. This was robust and rich and insightful, and I’m just grateful they asked me to sit in.
You’ve been listening to Take Note on WPSU. I’m Anne Danahy. Today’s panel discussion was led by Lori Bedell, who teaches rhetoric at Penn State and is part of Deliberation Nation. Participants were: Kyra Gines, a junior at State High; Jacob Matchock, a senior at Moshannon Valley High School; Martha Sherman, a mother of two elementary school students in State College and a criminologist on the faculty at Penn State; and John Zesiger, superintendent of the Moshannon Valley School District. To hear this and other episodes of Take Note, go to wpsu dot org slash Take Note.