Detecting danger: How children perceive school safety measures

Health

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Kids taking guns into school has become an increasing problem. It’s no different in Hampton Roads.

Two months ago, two students at Heritage High School in Newport News were shot and injured after a 15-year-old was allegedly able to get a gun into the building.

The seven cities in Hampton Roads all have similar school safety policies and procedures. They use metal detectors, have active shooter drills and conduct random safety searches. 10 On Your Side spoke with a school psychologist about how these procedures meant to keep schools safe can sometimes make students feel more unsafe.

“It is a double-edged sword,” said Dr. Jennifer Moran.

Moran, who is a clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, has spent many years working directly with children in schools. She was in Connecticut in 2012 during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 26 people, 20 of them children.

Moran has seen the evolution of school safety procedures like active shooter drills and permanent metal detectors, along with how students perceive them.

“On one side, walking into the school and seeing metal detectors might be a physical indicator that something is being done to protect students and student safety, but a lot of research also indicates that it might be sending the wrong message to students. That students can feel less safe and that they’re more likely to perceive violence is occurring within their school. When we walk in and see a metal detector, students are primed to look for or feel like ‘My school might be an unsafe place,'” Moran explained.

A fact acknowledged by school administrators throughout Hampton Roads and why districts only use metal detectors during large events and for random searches.

“I’m not a big proponent of making schools look like prisons. I’m a big proponent of making sure we have effective measures in place,” said Superintendent Dr. George Parker of Newport News.

It’s a message Parker has communicated several times since the Sept. 20 shooting at Heritage High School when asked about permanent metal detectors.

“I don’t support an everyday metal detection process,” Parker stated during an Oct. 5 Newport News School Board meeting that outlined the district’s safety procedures.

The key, Moran says, is finding a balance between students’ physical and psychological safety.

“Certainly it’s not wrong to have some of these physical safety measures in place. We need to protect students and staff in schools — but also the psychological safety measures about facilitating trusting relationships, having multi-disciplinary school teams in comprehensive mental health as well as encouraging that students do know what to do and who to go to if they see something,” Moran explained.

She also stressed that school districts have a system in place to evaluate safety procedures while studying the impact it can have on students and allowing students to opt out of certain safety drills if they feel triggered from a prior traumatic event.

“Whether it’s data collection in the school or just making sure that students do feel supported and that maybe some of these fears or anxieties are perceptions of the school are monitored,” Moran said.

Read more about area schools’ safety policies below:

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