Beyond Locks and Metal Detectors
Schools are generally safe places for kids; they’re supposed to be. And because of that. we send our children to school each day secure in the belief that they’ll be cared for, supervised and protected. For the most part, they are.
That’s why when the unthinkable happens – a deranged intruder or troubled student enters a school with a gun and opens fire – it shatters our sense of trust and security. Horrifying events such as the 1999 Columbine shootings and, more recently, the brutal killings at a Pennsylvania Amish school and the Virginia Tech massacre loom large in our parental consciousness, raising fears that our children could easily be victims too.
Yet, shootings like these are not the everyday worry of kids in most schools nationwide. When you consider the hundreds of thousands of schools in the United States, filled with children five days a week, 180 days a year, the incidence of deadly violence in those buildings is very rare. Even an isolated fatal shooting or stabbing involving only two people, while more common than a mass shooting, is also rare.
“Schools are indeed relatively safe places,” says Delbert Elliott, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “The risk of homicide is 70 times greater away from school than it is in school. It’s higher in the mall, at a fast-food restaurant or even in your own home than it is at school.”
Even so, Elliott and other school safety experts believe that most U.S. schools are not as safe as they could be. And it’s the students who will be the first to tell you they don’t always feel so secure, Elliott says.
Bullying, unchecked arguments, a sense of staff favoritism for certain student groups, or feelings of peer rejection are common among kids in many schools, these experts say. So is the fear and discomfort around fellow students who may be involved in illegal activities, such as gangs or drugs. A school environment tainted by any of these problems is more apt to be at risk of violence – even if it is armed with the latest security devices, safety experts say.
As we head into a new school year, what do you need to know about the safety of your child’s school? And what can you do if you’re not satisfied with the violence prevention programs and security devices in place? How can you approach school administrators without sounding alarmist or paranoid?
School safety experts offer the following advice on ensuring that your child’s school is a secure place for learning.
What Does a Safe School Look Like?
“A safe school is a place where students are free from bullying, harassment and ridicule,” says Marleen Wong, Ph.D., director of crisis counseling and intervention services for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest school district. “Where they can go to class unimpeded by any kind of threat, where they can sit in class and listen to the teacher teach without concern about disruptive behavior from other students.”
Wong and Elliott were among the experts who spoke at a White House Conference on School Safety in October 2006, on the heels of shootings at schools in Colorado, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The two focus their efforts to improve school safety more on a school’s social environment than on the security armor in place.
While the tendency following serious school violence is to want to install security cameras and locks and conduct personal searches, Elliott says there’s “very little evidence” that those measures are effective at deterring violence. “In fact,” he adds, “the exact opposite is true: A school that is open is safer than a school that is barricaded.”
Both Elliott and Wong believe that creating a respectful, open school climate is as crucial as teaching students and staff to be aware of people or situations that seem amiss. Elliott describes a safe school as one with:
High academic standards – Schools with high standards are valued by students and the community, which fosters a culture of pride.
A culture that promotes respect for students and teachers, and rewards good citizenship.
Clear rules and policies that are uniformly enforced – Both Elliott and Wong believe that many schools are not enforcing rules or policies in a uniform way.
“Everyone should be treated equally by the school with respect to discipline and policies and practices,” Elliott says. “At Columbine, one of the things that so angered parents was that depending on who you were as a student, you could get away with all sorts of things or not get away with it.”
Law enforcement experts emphasize how crucial it is to stop bullying behavior immediately or it will escalate, Wong says. Educators who dismiss verbal harassment with a “kids-will-be-kids” attitude create an environment where the informal message is that “no one will stop you if you verbally harass another kid.” And, Elliott adds, when kids believe they won’t be protected from other kids in school, that’s when they start carrying weapons.
High levels of parent and community involvement – Whether it’s parents volunteering during the day or community members attending adult classes at night, this shows students that adults in their lives care about the school environment and the kids there. “Having a lot of adults coming and going onto school grounds provides an increased measure of surveillance,” Elliot says. “These are community people and they recognize if someone is not known to them; they provide eyes and ears for something that isn’t right.”
Extended-day or after-school programs for kids – These help combat the tendency for problem behavior, crime or violence that research has shown increases during the hours between the end of the school day and family dinnertime, Elliott says.
What About Security Devices?
Beyond creating a fair, supportive and respectful school environment, however, the reality is that schools still do need security and emergency plans. Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm that has provided security and emergency preparedness recommendations and training for K-12 schools in 45 states, says many schools have those plans on paper but aren’t prepared to put them into action.
Trump has often found that “teachers and support staff have not been trained on emergency preparation; those plans have not been tested with public safety officials to make sure that what’s on paper would actually work in a real emergency.”
He blames this lack of preparedness on the ongoing pressure to improve standardized test scores in schools nationwide. “Time for staff training, time for emergency planning and time and dollars for working on security issues have been pushed not to the back burner, but off the stove entirely,” he says.
Trump, who appeared before Congress earlier this year to lobby for federal school emergency preparedness funds, says those funds have been cut 40 percent since 2003. Schools have to look to their local government budgets to make up the shortfall, he says. “Parents have to let their school districts know that they expect reasonable funding in their budget for emergencies and preparedness. Schools cannot keep looking at school safety as a grant-funded luxury,” he says, noting that school administrators often ask him where to get a grant for security devices, such as a buzzer intercom system or two-way radios – basics that Trump believes should already be budgeted for.
What kind of security does a school need?
Trained and aware students and staff – “Security technology is only as good as the human element behind it,” Trump says. “The most effective line of defense is a well-trained staff and students who know when there is a stranger in the parking lot, a stranger walking through the corridors. You also need students who know to recognize changes in the behavior of their fellow students or threats made by fellow students and know how to report those.”
Equipment that controls access to the school building – A buzzer intercom system and a camera at a locked front door works well for this, Trump says, “but you have to have an alert staff in case someone immediately follows a legitimate person let into the school.”
Communication equipment – This includes phones or intercoms in classrooms, and two-way radios for teachers in the cafeteria, in the gym or on the playground. Increasingly, schools are also looking into mass notification systems, which allow staff to notify parents quickly and with a mass-produced message if a crisis has occurred.
Most schools, Trump says, don’t have and don’t need metal detectors. Even large, urban school districts with a history of finding weapons in their buildings have found that metal detectors are “not a panacea,” he says.
Who – and How – to Ask About School Safety
School safety is a delicate, politically sensitive subject in many districts, and school administrators may be closed-mouthed, defensive or even in denial about how safe their buildings are from student or intruder violence. Parents need to know this and ask school administrators and school boards about the following:
Security and emergency preparedness equipment and plans – Are the plans up to date and tested? Has the staff been fully trained? Ask “in a supportive, nonaccusatory way,” Trump suggests. “It’s not an issue of pointing fingers; it’s saying, ‘Here’s what we expect. How can we help?’”
The overall school environment – Elliott recommends that schools do a school climate survey among students and staff every few years: “Is it a climate where everyone is treated fairly, where there is no need to carry weapons, where there’s not a lot of fighting and disrespect going on?”
Bullying prevention – “Most states have some kind of legislation requiring a bullying program,” Elliott says. “If there’s a level of bullying at a school, they should not only have a policy about bullying but a program in place to deal with it. The first question is, ‘Do they have a policy and are they actually enforcing it uniformly?’”
Suspensions, expulsions and violent incidents – Talk with teachers informally and ask whether they really have time to teach or spend a lot of time disciplining students, Elliott suggests.
If you’re not satisfied with the answers you’re getting, seek support from other parents in the community and approach the school district with offers to help. “Sometimes it takes something like packing a board meeting with 60 people,” Elliott says. “If parents go in and say, ‘We’re just concerned about our kids. Can we help you? Can we get a parent group together to come in and make some recommendations?’ – that can make the difference.”
• Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder – Offers a blueprint by which school safety and violence prevention programs can be measured and certified. Provides statistics about bullying, school violence and kids’ thoughts on school safety.
• National School Safety and Security Services – Includes questions parents can ask school administrators about safety, violence prevention and emergency plans.
• U.S. Department of Education – Lists the characteristics of a safe school and features a report to President Bush following the spring 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech and an opportunity to share ideas on ways to keep students safe.