Panic over panic buttons, guardians galore, and other school safety “legislation by anecdote”: Why lobbying based upon single incidents and high-profile tragedies does not necessarily make good school safety law.

Posted by on June 10, 2024

Several state legislatures have passed laws requiring schools to have panic buttons or similar emergency alert systems, often dubbed “Alyssa’s Law” based upon advocacy by a Florida parent who lost her daughter in the Parkland school shooting.

A number of states have passed laws requiring all schools to have police officers or armed “guardians.”

There are also other laws being considered and/or passed that are also being driven by advocates, activists, vendors, and political lobbying. They are often unfunded or underfunded mandates that leave local school leaders in a bind when it comes implementation time.

Preying on fears of school shootings, not making decisions based upon independent research

The problem is that the claims of actual effectiveness of school security products, technology or other measures being forced upon school leaders via “legislation by anecdote” – laws created in reactive responses to high-profile incidents – are typically not backed by research or other evidence-based data.

What independent evidence is there to show that a state’s mandating that all schools have panic buttons, armed guardians, or other technology or products will prevent the next school shooting? Or for that matter, what independent evidence is there to show that the mandates would have definitely prevented one of those school shootings that already occurred?

An accurate description of this challenge came in a February 21, 2024, article by The Dallas Morning News titled: 5 things to know about the growing active shooter defense industry in Texas; Some experts question the booming industry and whether any of these strategies are effective at stopping gun violence.

Odis Johnson, executive director of Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said no evidence-based research shows that companies marketed to lower the risk of an active shooter situation actually do.

Most research on school safety tools is self-reported, letting companies focus on the variety of offerings, rather than effectiveness, according to a 2016 report on school safety technology by researchers at Johns Hopkins.

“Market research is there to attract and secure clients,” Johnson said. “We would not really know about the cases where their work really failed.”

The market research Dr. Johnson refers to comes from the security hardware, product and tech vendors themselves. It’s their “research” claiming their products or tech is effective that is pushed at school administrators who are often well-intended but gullible consumers. And it is often not independently vetted or verified. (One exception is the independent research and reporting done by IPVM, the leading independent authority on physical security technology.)

Some security vendors are, however, backed by advocates who garner headlines and increased political lobbying. The advocates make emotional pleas with little-to-no pushback. There is also an infiltration of money in general and private equity money specificially, driving some of the companies doing intensified lobbying of state and federal politicians, and possibly even behind some of those who appear on the surface to the public to be advocates and activists.

Research, critical thinking need to drive educator and legislator decisions

School leaders are under enormous parent and school-community pressure, and feel they must “do something, do anything, do it fast, and do it now.” So are elected officials.

Both groups — educators and politicians — need to take a tactical pause and make educated, informed decisions based upon independent research and best practices.

They also need to exercise extreme caution in legislating mandates that schools have “XYZ” school security products or technology without extensive input from professionals on the very front lines of education and school safety (not necessarily just their professional associations, some of which have financial interests with some school safety vendors who exhibit or sponsor for their associations).

Virginia legislators actually tabled Alyssa’s Law panic button mandate legislation in February of 2024. Others states have passed it into law. Several states have also passed school “guardian” laws, only to leave school leaders struggling to comply with unfunded, underfunded and/or understaffed scenarios.

The devil rests in the details and fidelity of implementation – areas that seem to receive far too little attention on the front-end when these mandates and issues are first being considered.

The costs of mandates coming from “legislation by anecdote” can be huge, both financially and in unintended implementation consequences coming from these mandates.

Dr. Kenneth S. Trump is President of National School Safety and Security Services  

National School Safety and Security Services

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