School safety

An illustration of three children walking into a school.

School safety is top-of-mind for many, particularly after recent mass shootings have impacted schools, colleges, and universities across the United States. In this episode of the Population Healthy podcast, we'll speak with two University of Michigan School of Public Health researchers who are leading efforts to provide evidence-based strategies to promote school safety. We'll learn what encompasses school safety, who it involves, and how the National Center for School Safety—housed within Michigan Public Health—provides resources and information to school communities.

We'll also share a conversation with a Michigan prosecuting attorney who is leading an interdisciplinary task force aimed at mitigating firearm violence. The idea to convene the task force came in the aftermath of the school shootings in Oxford, Michigan in 2021 and in Uvalde, Texas in 2022.

Listen to "School Safety" on Spreaker.

0:00:06.2 Justin Heinze: I think one of the important things to remember about the narrative around school safety is it's probably a lot broader than what immediately comes to mind. I think for many people when we talk about school safety, the imagery around school shootings that have happened at Parkland, at Sandy Hook Elementary, that's what becomes salient. But school safety is much broader than just preventing mass shooting incidents. They are horrific events and they have tremendous ramifications for the school communities but there are also many interpersonal violent encounters that could involve a firearm or might not. There could be bullying behavior. We can think about mental health as related to school safety and whether students are at risk for suicide. We can think about the psychological violence that can happen between students. We can think about dating violence that might be happening as students enter into those new relationships. All of that encompasses what I consider school safety. So it is the prevention of physical injury, absolutely, but I also think about the emotional and psychological implications for the school environments. I think about all the people that comprise a school.

0:01:23.3 Speaker 2: In today's episode, we'll be talking about school safety. We'll share a gripping conversation with a county prosecutor here in Michigan who's handling the case against a school shooter in Oxford, Michigan. Four students died and seven others were wounded in the Fall of 2021. But first, we'll speak with two University of Michigan School of Public Health researchers who are leading the way in both school safety and firearm violence prevention research. Hello and welcome to Population Healthy, a podcast from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Join us as we dig into important health topics, stuff that affects the health of all of us at a population level, from the microscopic to the macroeconomic, the social to the environmental, from cities to neighborhoods, states to countries, and around the world. Marc Zimmerman and Justin Heinze are co-directors of the National Center for School Safety, which provides training assistance and resources to improve school safety with evidence-based solutions. Zimmerman is the Marshall H. Becker Collegiate Professor of Public Health at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the co-director of the University of Michigan's Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention. To begin, we ask the researchers to define school safety.

0:02:42.1 Marc Zimmerman: Well, school safety isn't just the absence of violence. School safety is also the presence of a positive environment for healthy development. And that's how we think about it in the National Center. It goes back to the ideas. If we nurture, we help prevent and if we just focus on problems, then we're focusing on fixing things. But if we think about positives and how can we build up positive aspects of a school environment or adolescent development more generally, then we're gonna start thinking about how do we build positive things so that they don't get violent in the first place. And so that's, I think, a really important kind of angle and perspective that we take. So basically school safety is creating the supportive culture and tolerance of diversity so that every child can believe in themselves and have an opportunity to grow and develop in a healthy way.

0:03:37.1 MZ: It doesn't take very long before you start looking at violent behavior and start looking at the connection between schools and school connections, because this is where most adolescents spend a lot of their times with their peers is in schools. That's where conflict may occur. But it also became very clear to me very early on in my career that the schools are just walls. And while that is a place of concentrated interaction with their peers, sometimes what happens in their neighborhoods gets carried over into the school or walking from home to school, for those who are walkers, or what happens in school will often play itself out back home. And it may not be the same neighborhood, it might be an adjacent neighborhood, but the older kids get, the more they interact outside of the school building in unsupervised ways, especially I'm thinking high school students 'cause that's where I started was looking at high school students. So it became very clear to me that school safety was something bigger than what happens in the buildings.

0:04:40.0 S2: Heinze is an associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and also a member of the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention.

0:04:49.3 JH: There could be bullying behavior. We can think about mental health as related to school safety and whether students are at risk for suicide. We can think about the psychological violence that can happen between students. We can think about dating violence that might be happening as students enter into those new relationships. All of that encompasses what I consider school safety. So it is the prevention of physical injury, absolutely, but I also think about the emotional and psychological implications for the school environments. I think about all the people that comprise a school. People don't often realize that teachers are often victims of violence within schools, either from students but also sometimes their peers and colleagues. All of those play into the milieu when we're considering what does it mean to have a safe school. And so for us, we try to think about safety from a multifaceted perspective because the interventions that we need to employ in order to make schools safe also need to be able to address these many different ways that injury can happen within schools in order to prevent that violence.

0:05:55.2 MZ: We have to think ecologically when we think about youth violence or when we think about firearm violence, when we think about a positive youth development. We have to think about the other kinds of influences. Everything from what the individual kid brings, whether they're problem solving skills, they're executive functioning skills, how do they solve a problem, how do they implement an idea, to what are the influences of their parents, what is the influence that's happening in their communities. And then of course, you can go further and further out and think about what are the school policies, what are the community policies that may create those kinds of situations.

0:06:29.0 S2: Zimmerman says the data paints a pretty clear picture of the gaps and opportunities that exist when it comes to reducing school violence.

0:06:37.0 MZ: About 1% of all firearm deaths are mass shootings. Only 10% of that 1% are in schools. Yet if you ask people about school violence, the first thing they'll probably say are mass shootings. Now why is that? It's because they make headlines, because it's heinous, it's also the innocence. It just goes against every sort of sense of morality in our lives and our bodies. But the bottom line is it really doesn't happen very often. And I think an important message is our schools are essentially safe from those kinds of issues. So I think that's an important point. It shouldn't freeze us but it should definitely make us think about what are we gonna do about this problem and we have to do something about it. The other statistic that I'd like to point out is that based on national studies from CDC, 6% of youth say that they've carried a gun to school. 6%. The average high school in America is 500 kids. 6% of 500 is 30 kids, which means if an average school year is about 40 weeks, that's almost once a week.

0:07:43.0 MZ: That is another issue that people are not really paying attention to so much. They're paying attention to the more rare instance of a major shooting. But there are lots of one-offs where there's one kid shooting another kid. Makes the news but not the same way that the Parkland School or Columbine 20 plus years ago. The other thing I'd like to point out is there's rarely a person who wakes up in the morning and says, "I think this is a good day to find a gun and shoot people." There's almost always precursing events. It's isolation in that school. It's alienation. It's being bullied. It's access to a firearm. To prevent this is not just what happens in the schools but, as I said, supportive culture is important. Bystander training is important. If you see something, say something. We worked the Sandy Hook Foundation and evaluating their Say Hello program where the idea is you say hello to somebody you don't typically talk to so nobody feels isolated 'cause we know isolation could lead to alienation and then not feeling connected, and then coming into a school and adding to all sorts of psychological distress and that sort of thing.

0:08:49.9 MZ: And then they have a program connected with anonymous reporting systems of if you see something, say something and know the signs of somebody who might be going down that slippery slope where they might wake up one morning and decide, given all those things that built up, to find a gun. So there's environmental things and work that we can do in the schools, but we also know access. 75% of all school shooters have access to a gun either in their home or a relative's home. So what does that mean? Well, if they're high school students, they probably can't legally buy a gun yet because they're under 18. And there's lots of ways to prevent a gun from being in the wrong hands. At some level, school shootings are also the responsibility of the parents and families. Lock your gun, unload it, lock your ammunition separately, and don't leave the keys hanging with all the car keys. A 15-year old is smart enough to know where the keys are to open up a gun cabinet. So there are things on that side of gun safety that we can do to reduce it.

0:09:49.5 S2: Heinze agrees, highlighting the need to look at school safety from a multifaceted perspective.

0:09:55.0 JH: In order to build a safe school environment, I can't help but to bring in my public health training and public health perspective. It is thinking holistically about the ways that we need to intervene about the populations with whom we need to engage. It is not just focusing on students, it's considering all the adults and students within the building, but also those that surround a school community. That would include parents. That could also include folks in neighborhoods and businesses. All of these stakeholders have a role to play in order to improve safety within school environments. One of the challenges, though, that I find is oftentimes safety and security programs and strategies are implemented within schools without a lot of evidence base to support their implementation and efficacy. That means that we could, one, be providing a false sense of security. We think that we're doing something to improve a building's safety but in fact it's not going to have an effect if there was the possibility of violence.

0:11:00.8 JH: And second, we've even seen situations where some of these strategies and programs that ostensibly are designed to help keep students safe can actually be harmful. They can be harmful because of the students' experience with them. They can be harmful for different groups of students and subpopulations within school buildings. So to think about how all of these different programs that are implemented, again, some with evidence base and we have a lot of data to suggest that when implemented well they can be very effective, but then some that we have very very little research and very very little evidence to support their selection and implementation. And so part of then what we can do as researchers is to think, okay, what is the state of the science? What is the state of the evidence? How can we develop best practices for those programs and strategies that have an evidence base? And then for those that don't, how can we begin to develop that? How can we work with our school partners and our community partners to design the studies, to collect the data, in order to provide that evidence base so that administrators can make the best decisions on their students' behalf? 

0:12:02.4 JH: And I'd like to give you an example of what I'm talking about. Active shooter training, sometimes called lockdown drills. This is where buildings are trying to prepare students for what to do in the event that someone is a danger to the school community. They're very very common. This is an example where when not done well, so there are some examples where the program simulates gunfire or creates a sense of fear for students that can be a little bit traumatizing and there's some unfortunate stories where students have called their parents, they've been very scared, we find from the data that we've collected that students will report varying levels of fear and anxiety about these drills, which suggests to us that we need to be very intentional about how these drills are implemented. But the interesting thing, when we ask parents about these drills, overwhelmingly parents wanna see these drills happening within their schools. And it's not just limited to drills. I think when it comes to things like locked door policies and metal detectors and school resource officers, parents, understandably, are really invested in doing everything that they can to keep their students and their buildings safe.

0:13:11.9 JH: Which does make sense but at the same time they might not be thinking about how that environment shapes their students' learning experiences. And so for us, we need to have both the parents and the students and our school community members at the table so that everybody can kind of understand how these experiences are playing out in practice. It's coordinating with this important stakeholder group, parents, that a drill has been happening so if your child comes home after experiencing one of these drills and they're a little quiet or they might have some questions, a parent can be there. They can be another resource for their student. So we're taking an intervention that happens within the school but considering all the different ways and all the different people that could be informing it and how we can create that supportive environment and network for our students.

0:14:00.0 S2: The "we" that Heinze is referring to is their team at the National Center for School Safety. The group is a leading resource for school districts across the country when it comes to improving their school violence prevention strategies.

0:14:11.2 JH: The purpose of the National Center for School Safety, it's really twofold. Primarily, we are a training and technical assistance center. That means we have grantees across the country who are implementing school safety practices and strategies and our job is to help translate the evidence base and inform the implementation of these programs. The second facet of our center's mission is really research-focused. There are a number of school strategies that are implemented in some cases quite broadly and widely that don't have a lot of evidence base to support their implementation or efficacy. We wanna help to develop that evidence base and that's part of our role as scholars here at the University of Michigan. And we've tried to integrate that within our center as well.

0:14:52.9 MZ: Really, the goal of school safety is to ultimately improve positive youth development and learning. And the way to get there is to make sure our schools are safe and to create that supportive culture we talked about. So we think about school safety in terms of social environment, which is like the climate, what we call an attentive environment, which is that early detection, knowing the signs, and then the physical environment, that might be things like cameras and metal detectors and simple things like locks on doors to reduce the number of ways to get in and out of the school. Those are called deterrent measures. We're focusing on what is the evidence for all three of those things. Something like 20 to 30 states in the United States require school safety officers. Well, some places just assign a police officer but it's really important that when you're working in that context that you understand what it's like to be a police officer in a school. Some school districts actually have their own police department, Atlanta for example. We also wanna make sure that they're not necessarily just criminalizing and arresting children. That's not the idea. The idea is to be part of the process.

0:16:00.0 MZ: Lots of law enforcement is prevention. Having their presence is sort of a prevention aspect but they're also part of threat assessment. I mean, if a child brings a gun into school and begins threatening somebody, maybe that's a law enforcement moment, but there's all sorts of things that happen in a school that don't require an arrest. They require a referral to mental health services, family services or other kinds of services. A well-trained school safety officer knows the difference. The center is designed to really be a conduit for what are best practices and how do we then help schools implement those best practices and translate the research that we know works to the practice of their place. And different schools operate in different ways. Some schools have the issues around school safety officers, others with threat assessment, others want to do drills and they wanna know what's the best way to do safe drills. Others want to create the kinds of policies that need to be in place so that everybody feels safe in schools. Sometimes we connect with the experts and we ask them to do a webinar. Other times we might create a learning community where we bring together 10, 20 schools that have school resource officers and have them share lessons learned, talk about what they do around training for their schools.

0:17:16.4 MZ: And then we have them just talk about, "Well, yeah, this doesn't work in our school because... " And then they exchange that information with each other. We wanna create settings for cross-learning. "Oh, we did that too. This is how we dealt with it." And hopefully a school might say, "Oh, that's a good idea. We would probably do it a little differently here in rural Texas than you might do that in suburban Detroit." We've also created resources for self-paced training. They can go to our website and they can just follow, What is threat assessment and how to do that best? We have others on trauma informed care. What do you do post-event or what do you do about kids who are exposed to those traumas? In fact, our approach to school safety is that we have to be comprehensive, that it isn't just one solution, that we have to do all these things. That we have to think ecologically. We have to think about the policies in a school, the climate in a school. We have to think about the knowing the signs and roles of school resource teams or violence prevention teams. And it's all of those.

0:18:17.6 JH: So one example that I feel exemplifies our approach, we have a grantee in Alaska that serves predominantly indigenous students that enabled us to go out onsite to learn more about the culture and context to best support them, and we wanted to understand how this particular community was finding solutions. So we were able to go out there, learn more about how they were engaging in mental health promotion and how some of their cultural practices were beneficial for their students. You're not gonna find that necessarily in some of the evidence-based literature because so much of it's done by majority populations. And so this was our chance to learn from a less-represented community that we hope we can apply to other indigenous populations or find ways to adapt. So now we are able to better focus on how to support that population and others with a cultural lens. Their particular focus was using tribal elders to support their mental health needs and we are hoping to help them document how that happens and maybe even evaluate its implementation and efficacy so, again, that we might be able to develop practices that other communities might be able to emulate as well.


0:19:34.3 JH: Part of our role as the National Center for School Safety is to be responsive to schools or districts that are experiencing a crisis. And this can be a student that has committed suicide, this can be if there's been damage to the building or in some cases it can be when there was an active shooter. And this happened right in our backyard in Oxford High School, in Oakland County, Michigan and we had been working with that district. A lot of this was generated from parent responses to the shooting and concerns about how to prevent a shooting from happening again. And it was the parents who reached out to us. They had found some of our information on the website. They connected us with the superintendent and their staff and that facilitated conversations that have now allowed us to help the Oxford community begin to develop a comprehensive school safety plan. So thinking about over the next three years, what can the district do to improve the safety and security of their buildings? What are some of the strategies they might select from? What sort of resources will they need to implement those strategies? How can they make sure that once the strategy is implemented, that those activities can be sustained? 

0:20:55.3 JH: And they did a lot of this work on their own. They were researching programs, they collected data from their stakeholders. They brought that to our team and allowed us to have a conversation around, "Based on what we're hearing from their stakeholders, based on what we're hearing from them, based on what we know about some of these different strategies, what might a plan look like and then how can we help you enact that?" And so those conversations are moving forward. We've been excited to help the district present some of the ideas that they're considering to collect more information from their parents and student bodies. And we'll be looking forward to seeing how this plan is actualized over the next several years.


0:21:36.0 S2: To continue the conversation, we turn to Karen McDonald. She's the prosecuting attorney for Oakland County in Michigan, our state's second most populous county. That's where the Oxford High School shooting took place in December 2021. In the aftermath of the Oxford shooting, McDonald created a commission on gun violence to develop evidence-based solutions for her community. Mark Zimmerman serves as one of several researchers on the commission, which first convened in September of 2022.

0:22:01.3 Karen McDonald: I took office in 2021. It was during the pandemic or right after so we were seeing an all-time rise in serious crime and homicide and gun violence. And then about a year into my first term, November 30th, there was a school shooting in Oxford, Michigan. And I'm the elected official so I made decisions about who was going to be charged and what they were gonna be charged with. And then as a result of that, I had already started doing a lot of educating myself and reading about gun violence. So then after Oxford, that's a whole different type of gun violence as the public's aware, I hope they're aware, we have more mass targeted shootings in the last 18 months than we've ever had in this country. We now know that the number one cause of death for children is not motor vehicle accidents, it's guns.

0:22:54.7 KM: So Oxford was an event that changed my life and changed thousands of other people. As the prosecutor, I was and still am very involved in how to prosecute in those proceedings. But I also sat and still do with victims, kids who had been shot, a teacher who had been shot, and parents who had their child killed. When you do that and you're steeped in the details of it, I was not capable of going home and putting it aside. I spent a lot of time reading and educating myself on what makes a mass shooter, what makes a 15-year old walk into a school and murder his classmates. And so one book and report and recommendation led to another. I wanted to talk to experts about how does this happen. I literally just personally started cold calling experts and reading like crazy. I was just so overcome with, How could this be still happening? I just don't even understand it.

0:23:55.7 S2: Still grappling with the tragedy in her own community, another school shooting, this time in Uvalde, Texas, happened. The May 2022 shooting was another catalyst for McDonald to develop a commission on gun violence.

0:24:07.2 KM: So Uvalde happened and the next morning I called Jim Etzin, who is a well known expert in tactical response to mass shootings but we have him right here in our state. I said I'm just gonna start a commission because no one else is doing it. It's not going to be just about reviewing how we responded and patting ourselves on the back about how many seconds it took or how vigorously we're prosecuting. We're going to actually use data and evidence-based solutions to publish a protocol so we can give it to parents, so we can give it to members of our community and say, "This is the gold star based on national experts of what we need to do." It's not just teaching kids to hide under their desks. That's important. Unfortunately we need to teach kids what to do. Night locks on classroom, very important. So the hard measures actually we've got to talk about that, but that's not the only thing. It's not the only thing. What the researchers will tell you, the experts, is that this takes a very holistic focused effort to talk about what do we need to be teaching kids or individuals so that they don't end up in a state of crisis or try to prevent that, which involves social emotional curriculum.

0:25:25.6 KM: We need to teach people how to recognize when someone's in crisis and then we need to teach them and give them an option of what to do. And then we need to publish universal accepted evidence-based threat assessment models. We need anonymous reporting system and then we need to make that available. So that's what I did. We will be publishing a comprehensive evidence-based model to prevent gun violence and mass shootings. And that doesn't mean just shootings that take place in schools. The majority of gun violence does not take place in schools. Majority of mass shootings do not take place in schools though those get our attention 'cause those are our children. Phase one is drafting these recommendations based on our working groups about what it looks like, and again that's trying to prevent before we ever get into a state of crisis with an individual, what to do once we know this person's in crisis, what we're gonna do after and then measures that we should be taking in the workplace and in the schools, the hard measures of what to do and how to prevent these incidents. Phase two is then informing the public and making this available to anyone who wants it and then going to our funding sources and saying, "Here's our recommendations based on these experts and here's what we need to fund it."


0:26:51.5 KM: One of the things I keep pushing for, and I think a lot of people don't disagree but just doesn't think it can happen, we have anonymous reporting system in Michigan, OK2SAY, and there's models like that all over the country but they are strictly for school-based threats. That just makes no sense to me. I mean, I always use the example when you're in an airport and you see a bag sitting by itself. We know as a community and the public knows that's a problem and we know what to do. We call law enforcement immediately. And we only know that because we've been informed. But what I am keenly aware of is that we can give all sorts of training on people in crisis and how to handle it and what to do but if we don't give solutions about where do we go, what's gonna happen, it doesn't mean anything. Right now, the only thing people know to do when you see somebody in crisis is to call the police. And first of all, that is not law enforcement's job. Unless it rises to the level of a crime, that's not in their toolkit. So then you're in some terrible situation, which we're in, which is you really have to just stand by and wait for a crime to be committed. And that means, in cases of gun violence, somebody's injured or dead. It just makes no sense.

0:28:04.9 KM: If we can fund and resource an anonymous reporting system for schools all over the state, then we can do it for people who are worried about the guy in the cubicle next to them who's researching weapons and talking about killing people. And then funding what we do after. There are some pretty good models, not a lot of them, in this country that involve care teams and leaning in. The data shows they've actually been able to prevent mass shootings. That's the kind of thing that I'm gonna really push for. So phase one is we're drafting, we're getting ready to publish. And then I'm going to be rolling up my sleeves and using every ounce of influencer political capital I have to get people to listen and then get behind it and fund it. I never imagined this would be something I was doing in this job but I'm certain of two things. One, I'm the highest law enforcement official in this county of 1.3 million people and the number one priority is public safety, and that means prevention as well. And number two, it takes somebody like me to do it.

0:29:09.5 KM: I have a microphone right now and a lot of media wanna talk a lot about this case and I use that to say, "Sure, I'll sit down with you but I wanna talk about the commission." I spent time with a lot of media just educating. We have Tom Teves from the No Notoriety campaign on our commission. And once I was educated about that, I filed a motion and asked the court that we never ever mention the shooter's name because one thing we know is that the notoriety gained from these shooters really just increases the likelihood we're gonna have another shooting.


0:29:49.0 S2: Thanks for listening to this episode of Population Healthy from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. We're glad you decided to join us and hope you learned something that'll help you improve your own health or make the world a healthier place. If you enjoyed the show, please subscribe or follow this podcast on iTunes, Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Be sure to follow us at @umichsph on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook so you can share your perspectives on the issues we discuss, learn more from Michigan public health experts and share episodes of the podcast with your friends on social media. You're invited to subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get the latest research news and analysis from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Visit to sign up. You can also check out the show notes on our website for more resources on the topics discussed in this episode. We hope you can join us for our next edition where we'll dig in further to public health topics that affect all of us at a population level.


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In This Episode

Justin HeinzeJustin Heinze

Associate Professor, Health Behavior and Health Education

Heinze's research investigates how schools influence disparities in violence and other risk outcomes from an ecological perspective that includes individual, interpersonal, and contextual influences on development. He is particularly interested in structural features of school context and policy that perpetuate inequity in violence and firearm outcomes, but also how these institutions can serve as a setting for intervention.

Marc ZimmermanMarc Zimmerman

Marshall H. Becker Collegiate Professor, Health Behavior and Health Education
Co-Director, University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention

Zimmerman's research focuses on adolescent health and resiliency, and empowerment theory. His work focuses on violence and firearm injury prevention. His research on adolescent health examines how positive factors in adolescents' lives help them overcome risks they face for violent and aggressive behavior. Although most of his work includes community prevention program development and evaluation with community partners, he also conducts survey research, longitudinal studies, and more in-depth qualitative approaches.

Karen McDonaldKaren McDonald

Prosecutor, Oakland County, Michigan

McDonald is a lifelong Michigan resident who was elected by the people of Oakland County to be their Prosecutor in November of 2020. Since taking office in January 2021, McDonald has formed a Trafficking Unit, Hate Crimes Unit and Conviction Integrity Unit. She has worked alongside leaders in the community, as well as her own office, to establish a Racial Justice Advisory Council as well as an internal Equity Team. In September 2022, McDonald formed the Commission to Address Gun Violence in Oakland County to develop a data-driven approach to combatting gun violence in Oakland County and beyond.