Each year, public schools in the U.S. collectively spend billions of dollars to keep students and educators safe. Although security measures have evolved and expanded dramatically in the last several decades — and become far more expensive — the need to protect students and staff is nothing new.
The country’s first high-profile school shooting unfolded in 1853 in Louisville, Kentucky, when a student shot and killed a teacher in an act of revenge. But the single deadliest attack at a school in U.S. history wasn’t a shooting but, rather, a bombing. The 1927 assault in Bath Township, Michigan, resulted in the deaths of 38 children and four adults. Though national newspapers rushed to cover the story, attention fizzled when the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight was successful two days later.
Though there hasn’t been a major schoolhouse fire since 1958, such tragedies used to be a major concern. In 1908, a furnace overheated and set a Collinwood, Ohio, campus ablaze, killing 172 students and two teachers. The tragedy, the worst of its kind in history, paved the way for modern-day fire-safety protocols. Other forms of safety routines followed, including hurricane drills, the Cold War-era “duck and cover,” and today, active shooter drills.
‘Superpredators’ and the Push for ‘Zero Tolerance’
Federal involvement in school safety and security began in the 1970s during a period of intense concern over juvenile crime and a perceived “epidemic” of youth drug use that got wrapped up in the government’s War on Drugs. The first federal reports on school safety were released in 1975 and 1978, finding that school violence and mayhem were on the rise. Such concern was evident in a 1975 article in The New York Times. It noted that many officials had become “so anesthetized” to school safety problems — including murder, rape and armed robbery — that they considered many “serious incidents inevitable.”
Efforts to address school violence picked up dramatically in the 1990s amid the fear of so-called “superpredators,” a trope depicting a violent teen crime wave that drove headlines and anti-crime legislation from both political parties. Among the measures enacted was the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which required schools to adopt “zero tolerance” policies that imposed expulsions on students who brought guns or other weapons to campus. The law ushered in an era of strict student discipline that disproportionately affected students of color. Districts adopted harsh disciplinary policies that went beyond punishments for violence to include low-level infractions like defiant behavior and tardiness.
The Origins of School Policing
In 1994, the U.S. Department of Justice established the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (dubbed COPS). Since its inception, the COPS Office has directed about $1 billion toward school safety grants, particularly for the hiring and training of school-based police, generally called school resource officers.
Police have been stationed in schools since the 1950s, but the trend was slow to catch on. By the 1970s, police officers were stationed at 1 percent of public schools. COPS office grants were instrumental in their rise and, today, about half of schools are staffed by a police officer. School violence has been declining since the 1990s.
Columbine and a New Era
The 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado was far from the first mass attack on a K-12 campus. Yet it got widespread media coverage, and the burgeoning 24-hour news cycle beamed live feeds into America’s living rooms. The tragedy became a pivotal moment in the national discourse over school safety, security and emergency preparedness. Both federal and state governments responded by investing additional resources in school-based police and security measures like metal detectors and surveillance cameras.
Columbine also pushed into motion a newfound national focus on preventing school bullying. Though now widely considered a myth, many speculated that school bullying motivated the Colorado school shooting. Today, state laws to combat bullying and cyberbullying fund prevention programs, train educators to recognize the signs of harassment and establish disciplinary actions. Also contributing to the rise of such laws was a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, which said schools could be held liable for failing to prevent students from sexually harassing their classmates.
More recent mass school shootings led to heightened attention on school-based policing, physical security and gun control. In fact, Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump each authorized new federal funding on school-based police following high-casualty mass shootings. Shootings have also led school leaders to improve emergency planning protocols, adopt active-shooter drills and, in some cases, to arm teachers.
Improving the School Experience
A lack of safety on school grounds can have a detrimental effect on campus climate, which refers to the way a student experiences the quality and character of their school. In turn, school climate can affect student behaviors and academic outcomes.
Researchers began studying the effects of school climate in the 1950s, and a body of evidence suggests that positive campus environments can lead to a decrease in crime. In recent years, efforts to improve school climate include positive behavioral interventions and supports and restorative justice. Student activists and civil rights groups have touted these measures as alternatives to school police, security equipment and suspending students. Through social, emotional and behavioral supports, these efforts are intended to help students form bonds with their peers and reduce their likelihood of becoming violent.
Some research suggests that efforts to promote school safety with policing and physical security like metal detectors could have a detrimental effect on campus climate and on students’ perceptions of safety. While there is some evidence that police reduce violence in schools, a WestEd research review concluded that the available evidence does not suggest “that police presence makes schools safer overall.”
Following years of data showing that school-based policing and physical campus security have a disparate impact on children of color, student-led efforts to remove officers from campuses gained steam in 2020 and prompted changes in dozens of districts. After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man, the “police-free schools movement” spurred some districts across the country to sever ties with the police.
Updated July 2021.