Calif. Educators Take Stock of Efforts To Ensure Schools Are Safe, Secure

By Millicent Lawton — March 27, 1991 11 min read
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” to be watching my back,” the soft-spoken 8th grader told Southern California educators and law enforcers gathered here for a conference this month.

“But when I go around the corner where Lennox Middle School is,” he continued, “the feeling in the back of my mind goes away, because ... I know nothing could happen to me [there].”

“I probably feel safer at school than in my own house,” added Jesse, whose words, sometimes wavering with emotion, brought a hush over the audience of more than 400.

The conference-goers had fought morning rush-hour traffic from all over Los Angeles County and neighboring areas for one reason: to learn how to better ensure that other students, staff members, and parents " feel as secure in their public schools as Jesse does. The Los Angeles County Office of Education’s 15th annual “Safe, Secure, and Peaceful Schools” in-service conference here marked the first such large-scale session for the region--including the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest--since a nonbinding 1989 legislative measure urged every California public school to draw up a site-specific safety plan.

California, which is widely recognized as a leader in tackling school-safety issues, has since 1982 been the only state with a constitutional provision guaranteeing students and staff members a safe school environment.

But with youth-related violence proliferating throughout the state, satisfying that guarantee is an increasingly daunting task, according to educators and law enforcers here.

The conference, sponsored by the county’s education office in conjunction with other Southern California education and law-enforcement agencies, aimed to help districts fulfill the safe-schools commitment by offering a model plan for school safety. The state education department and the state attorney general’s office drew up the plan.

While many at the conference said they had heard about the model plan--the state’s 1,018 districts have received copies and each school principal has been sent a notice of its existence--most indicated they had not seen a copy until the training session.

School officials here acknowledged that many districts have lagged in developing safety plans. At best, only about 25 percent of the 1,642 schools in Los Angeles County, for example, have written safety and security plans for their 1.3 million students. And only a handful of the 82 districts in the county have districtwide plans, officials in the county’s education office said.

2 States Seen as Leaders

South Carolina, which last year mandated that its schools adopt similar safety plans, is thought to be the only other state to have undertaken such an effort, according to Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Encino, Calif.

California and South Carolina are also the only two states to require school-crime reporting, he said.

Mr. Stephens sees the two states’ actions as having “significant implications on a national basis.” He said they could prompt other states to take a “strategic and tactical planning” approach to reducing safety problems in school.

Such problems are urgent ones, according to Capt. Ray Gott, who commands the 130-person gang unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

In his county, Captain Gott told the conference-goers, assaults on school campuses in 1988-89 were up by 17 percent from the year before. In the same year, he said, weapons-possession incidents were up by 6 percent and two homicides were recorded-- both on elementary-school grounds.

Across California, between the 1987-88 and 1988-89 school years, state figures show, total reported school-crime incidents rose by 5 per cent, to 174,478, and assaults increased by 12 percent, to more than 69,000 incidents. Possession of all weapons was up by 21 percent in 1988-89 over the prior year, while gun-possession incidents alone jumped by 40 percent--and doubled between 1985-86 and last year.

Nationally, a new federal study found that in 1988 teenage males, both black and white, were more likely to die from gunshots than from natural causes. (See Education Week, March 20, 1991.)

‘We’re Taking a Broader View’

California’s model plan, “Safe Schools: A Planning Guide for Action,” is meant to be a strategic checklist and offers a comprehensive approach--stressing prevention and interagency cooperation-- to combat gangs, weapons, drugs, truancy, dropouts, vandalism, and other troubles in schools.

“Some people think that if they put up a fence, that’s all they’ve got to do and they have a safe school,” said Mary Weaver, program administrator of the state department of education’s office of school climate and student-support services. “That’s clearly not enough.”

“We’re getting away from the focus of safe-schools planning on law and order,” added William J. Stelzner, a consultant on attendance and administrative services for the Los Angeles County education office and an organizer of the in-service conference.

“We’re taking a broader view of safe schools,” he said.

In the years since the 1982 adoption of California’s safe-schools amendment and initial “knee-jerk reactions” to solving safety and security problems, it has become clear that “unless we really go beneath the surface,” the problems will persist and worsen, said John Burton, coordinator for child wel fare and attendance in the San Bernadino County schools.

Or, as Captain Gott put it, after 15 years of local conferences on crime and violence in schools, “we still haven’t gotten it right, but we’re going to keep trying.”

Mr. Burton said people have to stop looking at school safety as solely a school issue. The problems are not inherent to school campuses, he said, but have encroached from beyond the chain-link fences.

“It’s a community problem,” he stressed.

Components of Model Plan

That concept is just what proponents of the state’s model plan hope to convey: Everyone from the district superintendent to the local YMCA must be involved in school safety, and schools must be viewed as complex communities in which every part has to be carefully tuned for harmony to prevail.

The model represents a collection of elements culled from a 1988 survey of literature on effective schools, Ms. Weaver of the state education department said.

Each component by itself is not enough to ensure a safe school experience, she said, but “bringing all the elements together is what makes this model different.”

The model safety plan centers on four essential factors figuring in the safety of a school:

Personal characteristics of the school’s students and staff, including ethnic and cultural diversity, life experiences, staff expertise, and health concerns.

The physical environment, such as location, grounds, the state of the building and classrooms, and inter nal security procedures.

The social environment, including the ways in which people get along, rules and procedures, school and classroom organization, and degree of involvement by students, teachers, parents, community groups, and law enforcers.The cultural setting, including feelings of security and mutual concern, behavioral expectations, academic expectations, discipline, and support and recognition for students and staff members.

Interagency Community Ties

At the gathering this month, panelists from schools now employing some of the techniques shared their diverse strategies.

Wendell Bass, vice principal at Lincoln Preparatory High School in San Diego, told about the inner-city school’s turnaround since 1986,when it suffered from graffiti-marred facilities, poor academic performance, lack of leadership, and low parent involvement.

By declaring a “A New Attitude” to be the school’s theme, raising expectations and self-esteem for students, and involving parents, Mr. Bass said, administrators there have watched behavior improve and graffiti and vandalism decline to among the lowest levels in the district.

“Our kids were just looking for someone to care,” Mr. Bass said.

In the district that was the site of the conference, interagency and community cooperation is the key to the plan described by Edward Sussman, superintendent of the 16,000-student Downey Unified School District. About two years ago, a community leader launched an effort called Gangs Out of Downey, or good, involving school officials, local police, community groups, and others.

Privately funded, the group takes what Mr. Sussman said is a “pro-active” approach, running self-esteem programs and getting at-risk students off the streets by enrolling them in sports programs.

The encouragement of such a collaborative stance is also one of the strongest points of the state’s model plan, school officials here said.

“The good part about [interagency collaboration] is that it doesn’t become a fireman’s mode, whereby you’re calling people after the incident,” said Buren R. Simmons, supervisor of the youth-relations and crime-prevention units of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"[Other agencies are] able to come to your aid on a moment’s notice because they are part of the process,” he said.’

Los Angeles district officials are working to heighten awareness about the model plan districtwide and to encourage schools to proceed independently to draw up their own plans, Mr. Simmons said. Some already have plans in place.

With California facing a potentially huge state-budget deficit and with district budgets even tighter than usual, the cost of implementing safety plans sits squarely in the front of school officials’ minds.

Budget Constraints

Ms. Weaver of the state education department said budget constraints had prompted former Gov. George Deukmejian to decide against a proposal mandating school-safety plans. Instead, the measure adopted by the legislature simply expressed the lawmakers’ “legislative intent” to encourage such plans.

With only modest amounts of state money available to help districts train staff members and institute the plans, local agencies such as Los Angeles County’s education office must pick up the slack.

The conference here offered districts and schools a way to implement a program without having to spend months of time, effort, and money creating their own, said Mr. Burton, who helped found the first such annual in- service session sponsored by the Los Angeles County office 15 years ago.

“You can very successfully use the cut-and-paste approach,” he said.

But the state is making available both advice and “mini-grants” to support the safety plans.

The education department offers about 100 matching-fund mini- grants of $5,000 each to schools to help them execute approved school- safety plans, Ms. Weaver said. The grants come from the agency’s $650,000 annual budget for such lo cal assistance, she said.

So far, 215 schools out of the roughly 8,000 statewide have received the grants over the last two years--"one drop in a very large bucket,” Ms. Weaver conceded. Her agency hopes to fund another 100 schools starting this fall, she said.

Drawing on Other Resources

There is no way to gauge how many schools statewide have safety plans similar to the state model, Ms. Weaver said, although many schools may have some safety component in longstanding school-improvement plans.

For the 1990-91 school year, five schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District received state mini- grants for such plans, she said, but no schools in San Francisco, Oak land, or San Diego received grants.

In addition to the mini-grants, districts and schools may draw on the expertise of the School/Law Enforcement Partnership Cadre, run jointly for several years by the state education department and the attorney general’s office.

On an annual budget of $170,000, the trained volunteer group--50 educators and 50 law enforcers--travels throughout California providing technical help and resource materials to schools, law-enforcement offices, and other youth-serving agencies.

This year, members will also offer special training in safety plans for schools, beginning in Bakersfield this spring and expanding statewide in the fall.

Other funding sources may arise through the model plan’s intern agency approach, which enables schools to share the cost with local police or other agencies.

“There’s not the money to do it alone,” said Dolores Farrell, a crime-prevention specialist with the attorney general’s office. “You have to do it jointly.”

For schools that obtain mini- grants, the money may go toward many different aspects of safety plans, Ms. Weaver said. The $10,000 total--mini-grant plus matching funds--might be used to train staff members to recognize signs of gang activity, or to instruct 6th graders in conflict-resolution skills.

Some mini-grant money has already helped stem violence, according to Lee Lundberg, director of attendance and support services for the San Leandro Unified School Dis trict, near Oakland.

By the middle of last year, the district had used a mini-grant to purchase for its security officers new portable two-way transmitters that can tie in to the juvenile division of ! the local police department.

The preparation paid off last October, Mr. Lundberg said, when an off- campus lunchtime melee broke out, ultimately involving 300 to 400 San & Leandro High School students and 125 police from several jurisdictions.

“We believe [having the walkie-talkies to aid in controlling the crowd] certainly saved potential injury” and made for a “much safer ongoing environment,” Mr. Lundberg said.

Lupe Simpson, principal at Chester W. Nimitz Junior High School in Huntington Park, outside Los Angeles, said her school would use its safety-plan grant to train teachers in a self-esteem program for 6th graders designated by their elementary schools as needing help.

While weapons and violence are not prevalent in her 3,600-student, predominantly Hispanic school, Ms. Simpson said, some students suffer from low self-esteem and are “wannabe,” or aspiring, gang members.

Self-esteem and respect for others are essential to safety in her over= crowded school, which has no area for recess play, she added.

The school, in coordination with the local police, turned to the self-esteem plan, Ms. Simpson said, because they had already tried such tactics as installing metal detectors.

“We said, ‘We just need something else,”’ the principal said.

“If it works,” she added, “it’s going to be great.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 1991 edition of Education Week as Calif. Educators Take Stock of Efforts To Ensure Schools Are


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