In Crisis, an Anguishing Unknown: ‘How Can We Protect Our Pupils?’

By Lisa Jennings — January 25, 1989 8 min read

In the aftermath of what is being called the worst act of violence ever to occur on a school campus, Stockton, Calif., school officials were among those predicting last week that the incident would prompt districts across the country to review their school-safety policies.

Ironically, the unprecedented disaster took place in the only state whose constitution offers both students and school employees an “inalienable” right àto campuses that are “safe, secure, and peaceful.”

But even in California, where safety is a matter of state law, the extent of school offi6cials’ obligation to take preventive measures remains an unsettled issue.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig last week said there was nothing that officials at Stockton’s Cleveland Elementary School could have done to stop the lone gunman, Patrick Purdy.

“Society is responsible for allowing for the availability of handguns,” he contended, adding that “you can’t fault a school for not planning for a guy with a machine gun.”

But other school leaders last week were sounding an alarm, citing the incident as an example of the need for much tighter security on school campuses.

“We can’t ignore the issue of school safety anymore,” said Sam Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “We’ve got to recognize that dangerous individuals do walk onto playgrounds, and they do this type of thing.”

“It has happened before,” he said. “We need to be prepared.”

But opinions remained divided last week on how far school leaders must go to protect students from violence and protect themselves from liability claims. And some lamented the prospect that schools might no longer be what Mr. Sava termed “safe sanctuaries, open as churches are,” but instead locked fortresses.

Time for ‘Walls?’

Last week’s shooting in Stockton occurred almost exactly 10 years after a teenage sniper in San Diego fatally shot a school principal and custodian, and wounded nine children, as they were arriving to school on a Monday morning.

Alex Rascon Jr., director of police services for the San Diego schools, said the incident in 1979 forced school officials to develop a school-safety plan long before such measures became common.

Having gone through that experience, Mr. Rascon said, he believes school officials cannot stress the importance of such a plan enough.

“Sometimes it takes a big incident like that to make you look at what you could do,” he said.

John Klose, spokesman for the Stockton district, said last week that the district planned to revamp its policies. Mr. Sava of the naesp sent a message out to members of his organization advising them to do the same.

But Mr. Honig and others declined to link the shooting to a call for heightened safety measures.

“I don’t think schools should apologize to anyone for this incident,” said Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National4School Boards Association. “To protect schools against this kind of maniacal conduct, we would have to build penitentiary walls around them and hire squads of security personnel.”

‘A Halfway Point’

The argument that schools must “build bunkers against crime creates a false dilemma,” countered George Nicholson, a municipal-court judge in Sacramento and the founder of the National School Safety Center in Pepperdine, Calif.

“There is a halfway point,” he contended, “where school officials can reconcile the competing interests of freedom and flexibility with safety and security.”

Tighter security measures might not have prevented last week’s disaster, agreed Ron Stephens, the safety center’s current director, but they could have a deterrent effect on the thousands of other incidents of violence and crime that school officials across the nation now face daily.

“There are things schools can do to make a difference,” he said, noting that his organization had published a lengthy guidebook for school administrators to help them plan for more secure campuses.

An Emotional Issue

The California Board of Education will publish a similar guidebook in March, according to Jack Dugan, director of crime prevention for the California Office of the Attorney General.

School safety has been a divisive and emotional issue among Californians for years, he noted.

In 1982, 56 percent of state voters backed a constitutional initiative called the Victims Bill of Rights, which provided for the right to safe, secure, and peaceful school campuses.

The amendment stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Gov. George Deukmajian, who was then state attorney general, against the Los Angeles Unified School District. The suit argued that public-school students were entitled to special protections, including the right to safe schools.

Since then, California courts have attempted to work out questions raised by the amendment, such as school or district liability in the event of a crime and the duty of school officials to implement safety measures.

One lawsuit in particular, which is now before the First District Court of Appeals, is often cited by experts as the case that could put teeth in the safe-schools provision.

In the suit, Hosemann v. Oakland Unified School District, Stephen Hosemann argues that he was physically assaulted on his junior-high-school campus by a former schoolmate. He claims that school officials were aware of the threat but failed to protect him, depriving him of his constitutional right to a safe school environment.

In May 1986, Superior Court Judge Richard Bartalini held the Oakland district--and individual administrators--liable for Mr. Hosemann’s injuries. He also ruled that the constitution’s safe-schools provision is both “mandatory, and self-executing,” and that the district “had an affirmative duty to to make schools safe.”

The judge ordered the district to develop a security plan for its campuses. But the school district appealed the ruling, putting the order on hold.

Robin B. Johansen, the attorney representing Oakland, has argued that the state cannot “guarantee” every right in its constitution.

The document also provides residents with the “right to be happy,” she noted, saying, “It’s not a question of schools being resistant to safety. The question is, what do you do about it?”

Violation of Civil Rights?

Although there remains no legal precedent on the safety provision, Kevin S. Washburn, Mr. Hosemann’s attorney in the case, is now involved in at least half a dozen similar suits against other school districts.

He also contends that a school’s inability to protect students against crime may violate civil rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

A federal appellate-court ruling last August in a Pennsylvania case may determine the relevence of that argument, Mr. Washburn said.

In Stoneking v. Bradford Area School District, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a lower-court ruling in favor of a student who had been molested by her high-school band director.

The court held that the school district violated the student’s right to “liberty” under the 14th Amendment because its officials were aware that the band director had been charged with sexual misconduct by another student but failed to take action.

The Bradford district has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as to the full Third Circuit Court.

At the same time, however, the district has agreed to out-of-court settlements of more than $70,000 with two other students who were molested by the same band director, according to attorneys on the Stoneking case.

How Much Is Enough?

While schools’ legal liability for campus safety remains ambiguous, developing a school-security plan is one “pro-active” move that could influence legal opinion, suggested Mr. Stephens of the National School Safety Center.

If school officials take steps to show that they have done everything they can to prevent crime and violence, courts may be loath to find them at fault, he argued.

But for Mr. Honig, an unfortunate result of the Hosemann case is that “some judge could decide what’s important for school safety, and that’s not what judges are elected to do.”

Last year, California’s General Assembly adopted a bill that would have required each school district to develop and implement a “Safe Schools Plan.” But Governor Deukmejian vetoed it, citing fiscal restraints.

Mr. Honig said last week that he would have the measure reintroduced this year. He also has proposed a new state policy that would mandate random audits of school districts by a team of specialists charged with making sure the safety plans were carried out.

Recent Criticism

Mr. Honig nonetheless has been criticized recently for his lack of leadership on safety issues.

A report released last month by a state watchdog agency charged that the state superintendent was more concerned about the liability of school districts than keeping students safe.

Many school officials have questioned the accuracy of the report, and Mr. Honig last week called it a “joke,” noting that much of the commission’s criticism had already been raised by his department.

In 1987, however, the state chief had supported legislation to limit the liability of school districts in safety cases.

But the bill languished, and since then, Mr. Honig has been more supportive of preventative measures as defense against liability, according to Mr. Dugan of the attorney general’s office.

“Certainly school safety is important,” Mr. Honig said. “There are things schools can do, and they work.”

“But what really gets me,” he said, “is that kids always end up paying the price for society’s ills. There are people out there who are thinking about keeping their kids inside all day because we can’t clean up society. And that’s just wrong.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 1989 edition of Education Week as In Crisis, an Anguishing Unknown: ‘How Can We Protect Our Pupils?’