Assessing emergency preparedness plans: School districts maintain comprehensive emergency preparedness and response plans that highlight a range of potential scenarios that could unfold on campus. For example, such contingency plans often focus on responding to active shooters, tornadoes and gas leaks. When did the districts in your area last make substantive revisions to these plans and what local or national scenarios led to those changes? Were consultants hired to make recommendations, and how were those “experts” vetted? Compare the district emergency response plans in your coverage area to those in nearby communities or to national models and identify potential planning weaknesses. If an emergency scenario unfolds in your area, revisit the district plan and analyze how closely its contents were followed.
Investigating sexual violence at school: Though often viewed through the lens of colleges and universities, sexual misconduct is a major concern among P-12 educators and others, but schools have long faced accusations that incidents are swept under the rug. As such, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights conducts regular investigations into such allegations to determine whether schools run afoul of Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination on campus. Use this federal database on sex discrimination investigations, which is regularly updated with new cases, to determine how many districts in your coverage area are the subjects of inquiries.
Track local security spending in your area: Mass school shootings often carry national implications. For example, the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, prompted schools across the country to invest additional funding on new security features. Unfortunately, additional mass school shootings may well occur. When such an event unfolds and draws national headlines, use school board meeting agendas, contracts and other public records to localize the story and highlight how the shooting affected campus security spending in your coverage area. Similarly, use districts’ annual budgets to track school security spending over time. If the districts in your area are investing more on security than they did in the past, conduct interviews with parents, students and educators to gauge whether the public’s perception of campus safety has changed. Also, look for research on the impact (or lack thereof) of such measures to promote safety.
Use anonymous tips to identify potential safety and security concerns: Many states and districts now offer anonymous tip lines and phone apps that allow students to notify educators and other officials about safety concerns. For example, students are encouraged to submit an anonymous tip if they believe a friend discussed plans to harm themselves or others. Use data from anonymous tip lines to track the most common safety concerns being reported in your area over time. Groups that run anonymous tip lines are often willing to share such data with reporters. For example, officials in Colorado offer a wealth of data about the statewide Safe2Tell anonymous tip line. Reports highlight the number of anonymous tips received for a range of safety concerns including bullying, weapons possession, self harm and shooting threats. While data on anonymous tips is a great starting point, reporters should interview school safety experts and school personnel to help readers understand the severity of safety risks being reported.
Investigate how schools identify students as potential threats: “Threat assessment” has become an increasingly popular school safety strategy in recent years, but it carries significant implications for at-risk kids. With threat assessment, teams of school leaders, counselors and police meet to discuss troubling student behaviors and offer resources to keep young people out of trouble. For this story, identify the strategies that districts in your area use to identify at-risk students. For example, are educators monitoring social media for cyberbullying or violent threats? What happens to the students who are identified as potential threats? What are the effects on youth civil rights?
Updated July 2021.