Bring in the Dogs: Using Canines to Improve School Safety and Security

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Matthew Cybert


Violence, in many ways, challenges school safety on a regular basis in the United States. According to the Washington Post, since 1999, gun violence in America’s schools has affected more than 187,000 students in thirty-six states, and 2018 was one of the deadliest years thus far. Between 1970 and today, there have been a total of 1,360 school shootings in grades K–12. But it is not just about shootings: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention purports that violence in the form of bullying, fighting, or gang activity in schools may not only physically but also emotionally harm students. Statistical reporting by the National Center for Educational Statistics revealed that 827,000 students suffered from some form of violence during the 2017 school year.
Current scholarship reveals mixed findings on the effectiveness of school safety initiatives, and on the impact of armed security and school resources officers (SROs). Some research supports the effectiveness of the presence of SROs, but few studies offer overwhelming evidence that an armed security or SRO presence yields a safer school environment. Schools have implemented physical security measures as well, such as metal detectors, access control, and security cameras. The limited scholarly literature on the impact of these physical-security measures reveals their marginal effect on school safety. One of the more promising initiatives is the threat assessment models from the Secret Service and FBI, which focus on mitigation by assessing and managing individuals who have a propensity toward violence. School violence persists, however, despite well-intentioned initiatives aimed at curbing it—threat assessments, SROs, metal detectors, cameras, and similar means. Continued effort is needed to discover the right combination of approaches.
It may be time to bring in the dogs—literally. Dogs can save lives by locating hidden bombs, solve crimes by revealing a concealed drug stash, and catch suspects who flee. Dogs help people who suffer from a physical handicap, mental illness, or emotional disorder. Dogs are pets and they are also valuable colleagues, but they are largely absent from schools. This thesis asserts that dogs possess therapeutic and security instincts that can benefit current school safety initiatives, especially when combined with a school resource officer (SRO). Humans love dogs, dogs love humans, and dogs are smart enough to ensure it stays that way. School counselors, teachers, SROs, and coaches alike all strive to bond with, understand, and help the students they support. These professionals do not always succeed, and this is precisely why dogs make sense. The complexities and humanlike functioning of a dog’s mind further bolster their fittingness for schools. With a dog as a partner, an SRO can be significantly more effective at physical security.
The stressors students face may lead to violent actions, and therapy dogs are specially trained to provide emotional assistance to students in need, thereby reducing the impact of stress and emotional or behavioral issues. This thesis found that many law enforcement agencies and school counseling offices have already implemented therapy dogs into their daily regimen. The results are profound: therapy dogs have been able to provide emotional support for crime victims, help students who are having trouble learning, relieve anxiety, and offer instant affection and support for people who have experienced traumatic events. Beyond their natural ability to provide emotional support, dogs are also exceptionally fit for police work, specifically in apprehension, detection, and search and rescue. This thesis found that some law enforcement agencies are successfully using dogs to detect drugs and weapons in schools, in addition to at least one dog that is trained to locate and subdue an active shooter. Outside of schools, government agencies are using dogs to detect a variety of odors in public areas. These example showcase dogs’ wide-ranging security instincts, which, this thesis argues, have a place in improving current school safety measures.
The thesis includes an observational study to demonstrate the positive effects of dog in schools. Focusing on the therapeutic qualities dogs possess, the study indicated that a therapy dog, when paired with an SRO, is a positive and beneficial experience for students, faculty, and SROs alike.
This research suggests that there are seemingly endless ways that dogs can improve current school safety initiatives. If the problem is with physical security, a specially trained dog can be brought in to enhance security. If the problem is with stress and emotional issues, a therapy dog has that covered. Whatever the need, bringing in a dog also softens the prison-like appearance of current physical security measures. This thesis suggests that the most practical way of introducing dogs into school safety initiatives is by pairing them with SROs. At the very least, dogs are a premier tool for building rapport, and there is no reason why an SRO should not have this tool at his or her disposal.

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