It Can Happen Here: Addressing School Safety and Security After a Mass Shooting in a Small Kansas Town

It Can Happen Here: Addressing School Safety and Security After a Mass Shooting in a Small Kansas Town

Jean A. Patterson (Wichita State University, USA), Bobby Berry (Wichita State University, USA), Jennifer L. Forker (Wichita State University, USA), Sharon Jaso (Wichita State University, USA), John Montford (Wichita State University, USA), Deborah A. Stubblefield (Wichita State University, USA) and Mercy O. Umeri (Wichita State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-5360-2.ch021
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On February 26, 2016, a mass shooting happened in the quiet town of Hesston, Kansas. A disgruntled employee opened fire at the Excel Industries plant, located directly across the street from the public-school complex. Four people were killed, and 14 others sustained serious injuries. This chapter reports findings from an interpretive qualitative study conducted to understand perceptions of safety and security measures taken in Hesston public schools after the shooting. The authors conducted personal interviews and focus groups which allowed for gathering and analyzing people's perspectives. Documents and artifacts were collected, and media coverage of the shooting was analyzed. Observations regarding safety and security measures were carried out at each school building. The results showed participants hold a strong attachment to their community that sustains the belief that Hesston is a safe place. They trust their law enforcement and other community leaders to take appropriate security measures.
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Research Problem

Schools in communities of all sizes across the United States are confronting safety and security concerns (Shelton, Owens, & Song, 2009). Feeling safe at school is a necessary precondition for student learning and optimal physical, emotional, and social development (S. Williams, Schneider, Wornell, & Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 2018). Over the past two decades, highly publicized episodes of violence and mass casualties in the US have generated considerable public concern and triggered substantial changes in school security practices (Cornell & Mayer, 2010). With the number of high-profile school shootings resulting in mass casualties, many small towns have struggled with determining proper safety and security measures both in the schools and the community at large (Diepenbrock, 2010).

Technology such as metal detectors and security cameras, as well as trained personnel such as school resource officers and private security guards, are some of the visible measures implemented to prevent school violence (Addington, 2009). The paradox is that schools may be unintentionally increasing fear while trying to decrease or prevent violence (Lindle, 2008; Perumean-Chaney & Sutton, 2013). Thus, students’ feeling of safety and being safe at school are both important but not always compatible goals (Gastic, 2011). For example, schools with metal detectors, locked doors, restroom limits, and adult supervision in the hallway, each have shown to increase at least one form of worry in student feelings of safety (Bachman, Randolph, & Brown, 2011). At the most basic level, a safe school could be characterized as one without physical violence. However, the feeling of safety is much more complex than merely the omission of physical violence; therefore, what constitutes school safety measures becomes a thorny issue as small town citizens grapple with how to implement measures to ensure student safety without increasing fears of danger (Bosworth, Ford, & Hernandaz, 2011).

While greater attention has been given to the issue of school safety in recent years, people who live in small towns still consider themselves safer than those living in big cities. Thus, in smaller towns there has been less emphasis on school safety and security, perhaps even some complacency, due to a feeling of “it can’t happen here.” Small town denizens take pride in their community providing a safe haven, a sanctuary from what they perceive to be big city problems. In contrast to larger cities where law enforcement is often viewed with suspicion, small town law enforcement contributes to an increased sense of comfortability, security, and confidence. This confidence helps establish an additional sense of security and tends to increase citizens’ perception of their town as a safe place where crime is rare (Nofziger & Williams, 2005). Many residents of small towns know each other socially, which further creates a culture of comfortability and sense of safety (Falcone, Wells, & Weisheit, 2002). These feelings of safety are weighed against potential threats to the community, especially one like Hesston where the unthinkable did happen.

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