Safe Schools, Thriving Students: What We Know About Creating Safe and Supportive Schools
A rise in the number of school shootings over time has driven increasing attention to school safety. However, school shootings are not the only physical safety threat students may encounter at school. Other types of violence include sexual assault, robbery, physical attack or fights, and threats of physical attack (with or without a weapon). In addition to immediate physical harms, school violence can have long-lasting effects that undermine students’ engagement and mental health. It can also increase drug use and risk of suicide. Although there is widespread agreement that all children and youth deserve a safe and healthy school environment, there is significant debate about how best to promote student safety.
This report summarizes the prevalence and effectiveness of strategies to improve student safety in schools. States, districts, and schools can look to existing research to understand more about the effectiveness of proposed strategies and the potential risk of unintended consequences.
The existing evidence base suggests that there are two common approaches to improving school safety: increasing security and building supportive school communities.
Strategies Intended to Increase Physical Security
Strategies to increase physical security have grown in use over time; however, the evidence base for some of these strategies is not robust.
Controlling access to the building and badging staff and visitors have become common practice within schools but there are no studies of the impact of these measures on school safety. Similarly, the vast majority of schools (91% in 2019–20) used security cameras, but there is no evidence that they improve school safety.
Metal detectors are relatively rare in school settings, and the existing evidence is sparse and does not provide support for expanding their use. Of the two studies examining the relationship between metal detectors and school safety, one found reports of fewer weapons being carried to school; however, neither found that the presence of metal detectors reduced the number of reported threats, physical fights, or student victimization in school. A few studies have found that metal detectors are not always effective in detecting weapons and are associated with lower perceptions of school safety among students.
School resource officers (SROs) are sworn law enforcement officers with arrest powers who work in school settings. Studies have found that the presence of school resource officers has limited effects on school safety and can lead to negative student outcomes. The largest, most rigorous study of SROs found that their presence increased the number of weapons detected and decreased the number of fights within schools but had no effect on gun-related incidents. However, the presence of SROs was associated with increased prevalence of suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and student arrests—all of which can have long-term negative impacts on students by increasing disengagement, dropout rates, and incarceration. These effects were consistently larger for Black students and students with disabilities.
Although arming schools staff has been suggested as a school safety strategy in some states, there is no evidence that it would be effective, and one study of school shootings found that the presence of an armed guard was associated with an increase in the number of casualties. Over the past 5 years, almost 100 incidents of accidental discharges of guns in schools have been reported, some of which resulted in death or injury.
Strategies to Build Supportive School Communities
There is a growing interest in improving school safety by building supportive school communities to protect against the perpetration of school violence.
Mental health supports have been shown to benefit students and schools. Multiple studies have found that counselors can reduce disciplinary incidents and disciplinary recidivism; improve teachers’ perceptions of school climate and student behavior; and increase academic achievement. School-based mental health services for students with clinical diagnoses can be effective in improving students’ mental health. However, schools’ ability to provide needed support is strained. On average, public schools have only 1 counselor for every 408 students and only 1 school psychologist for every 1,127 students. Only 42% of schools offer mental health treatment services.
A large body of research on social and emotional learning programs finds that they help promote the development of social and emotional competencies; reduce behavior problems and emotional distress; increase rates of prosocial behavior; improve relationships with others; and increase student engagement and achievement. Surveys also suggest that high schools’ promotion of social and emotional skills is positively associated with students feelings of safety.
Restorative practices—an alternative to exclusionary discipline practices—build community and teach strategies for resolving conflict. In 2019–20, 60% of schools reported using some sort of restorative practices. Studies of restorative practices and programs consistently find that they improve school safety, reduce the use of exclusionary discipline, decrease rates of student misbehavior, and improve school climate. A 2023 study found that high rates of student exposure to restorative practices at school also increased achievement and reduced mental health challenges. While 60% of schools reported using some form of restorative practices in 2019–20, studies confirm implementation challenges that require more intensive investments in professional development.
Structures that support positive developmental relationships within schools include small learning communities, advisory systems, block scheduling, looping (keeping the same teacher with a group of students for multiple years), smaller class sizes, and school–family connections. Multiple studies have found that positive relationships between students and staff throughout the school can help prevent physical violence and bullying; a major national study found that school connectedness was the strongest protective factor against school absenteeism, substance abuse, and violence for secondary students; and another study found that positive relationships significantly enhanced the odds of students communicating potential threats to adults.
Recommendations for Policy and Practice
States and school districts have an opportunity to foster safer schools and adopt research-backed supports and interventions to address students’ mental health and well-being. The research suggests the following investments can help support school safety:
- Increase student access to mental health and counseling resources. States and districts can allocate Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) and federal COVID-19 recovery funds, as well as other federal, state, and local funds, to hire more school counselors and other mental health professionals and make plans now to maintain those staffing levels when one-time funds expire. They can also invest in external partnerships with community mental health providers, who can provide school-based or telehealth services for students.
- Invest in integrated student support systems and community schools to connect students and families to needed supports. Integrated student supports that address physical and mental health, as well as social service needs, help create a personalized, systemic approach to supporting students. For state and district leaders, this means adopting and supporting comprehensive, multi-tiered systems of support, which provide students with universal supports for their well-being (such as advisories and social-emotional learning programs that support relationships) and include a well-designed system for adding more intensive, individualized interventions (such as counseling, tutoring, or specific services) as needed. Community schools integrate by design a range of supports and opportunities for students, families, and the community to promote students’ physical, social, emotional, and academic well-being.
- Adopt structures and practices that foster strong relationships. At the school and district levels, leaders can adopt structures and practices (e.g., advisories, small learning communities, looping, allocated time to create strong school–family connections) that foster secure relationships and provide teachers time to know their students and their families well. State and district leaders can further support relationship-centered school designs by removing impediments to these structures and practices that can exist within traditional staffing allocations, schedules, and collective bargaining agreements. They can also provide time, funding, and support for schools to implement advisories and other relationship-centered school designs that promote learning and development.
- Invest in restorative practices and social and emotional learning. School, district, and state leaders can support young people in learning key skills and developing responsibility for themselves and their communities by replacing zero-tolerance school discipline policies with policies focused on explicit teaching of social-emotional strategies and restorative discipline practices.
- Prepare all school staff to better support student well-being. All adults working in schools need preparation and support to consistently support students’ social and emotional development, develop positive relationships, recognize students in need of greater mental health support, and enact restorative practices. States can support professional learning around student safety and well-being through revisions to educator preparation program approval standards, licensure standard competencies, and in-service professional learning and development. Additionally, states can establish guidance for the appropriate use of school mental health staff, paraprofessionals, and other school staff, as well as criteria for hiring, training, and continuous evaluation of their performance and roles. In schools employing school resource officers or law enforcement personnel, school and district leaders should ensure they have clearly defined responsibilities, avoid engagement in daily discipline, and have the training and support necessary to effectively support students.
- Incorporate measures of school safety and student well-being in state and federal data collection. While there are many efforts to collect school safety data, existing sources only provide pieces of the school safety picture. A federally driven, systematic data collection that provides more detailed data on safety measures (e.g., roles of school resource officers), strategies to build supportive school communities, and educator practices that support positive school climate and student well-being by the federal government could give researchers and policymakers a more complete understanding of what schools are doing to create safe and supportive learning environments.
- Conduct equity reviews of school safety measures and their impact on discipline outcomes. Research has found that some efforts to improve school safety, such as the hiring of school resource officers, are sensitive to bias, particularly toward Black students and students with disabilities. To identify bias in implementation, schools, districts, and states can review disciplinary action data to track whether school safety measures are associated with increased use of exclusionary discipline and police referrals, particularly for Black students and students with disabilities. States and districts can also support schools in conducting equity reviews to track whether school safety measures have unintended consequences for students.
Safe Schools, Thriving Students: What We Know About Creating Safe and Supportive Schools by Jennifer DePaoli and Jennifer McCombs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
This research was supported by The California Endowment and the Stuart Foundation. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. LPI is grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of the funders.