Schools Being Forced To Cope With Impact of Crime, Violence

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In Oakland, Calif., schools, students periodically practice a drill in which they move away from windows and crouch under their desks.

It is not a fire drill, or even an earthquake drill, but a procedure to follow in the event that bullets are fired into a classroom during the gun fights that sometimes occur on the city streets.

Oakland's bullet drill is one small sign of the rapidly escalating prominence of security in school planning, as the guerilla warfare of crime and violence in urban communities spills over into the educational setting.

Other signs are legion.

In Philadelphia, a $2-million electronic door-lock system may be installed in city schools so that principals will not have to chain fire doors to shut out drug dealers and other intruders.

In Baltimore, high-school students are required to wear identification tags and are forbidden, in school hallways, to wear coats or carry bags that might conceal weapons.

And in New York City, the school board is considering installing metal detectors and other high-technology security devices in the wake of several vicious attacks on teachers last month.

The issue of school safety, say administrators nationwide, is one that has galvanized both the public and school authorities. But choosing an effective course of action, they add, can be a confusing, trial-and-error process--one that is fraught with problems of logistics, cost, and legal liability.

In April, the topic was addressed at a national "Urban Schools Safety Practicum'' in Detroit that brought together representatives from the 15 largest urban school districts to share ideas.

Though the relationship between school and police officials has often been adversarial in the past, the conferees said, today administrators are being forced to learn the language of law enforcement as they attempt to fulfill what one official called the "awesome task'' of providing a safe learning environment.

Sponsored by the National School Safety Center and the Council of the Great City Schools, the practicum gave administrators and security officials the chance to assess the wide range of possible techniques.

At one end of the spectrum is California, with a statewide approach described by some conference participants as "proactive.'' It rests on model legislation that includes a constitutional amendment guaranteeing each student and educator a safe school environment.

At the other end are cities, like New York and Detroit, where school officials have been forced, by increasingly violent incidents, to take more reactive steps, usually the installation of metal detectors or other protective devices.

Somewhere between the two are thousands of communities, large and small, still grappling with how much and what kind of security may be enough to prevent the unexpected from happening. And recent news reports of school violence in smaller cities and suburbs have made clear no system is immune.

Ensuring the safety of students and staff members in such a climate, concluded those attending the Detroit meeting, will require close cooperation between the school and law-enforcement agencies, as well as the support of the community.

Security has become "a necessary evil,'' said Alfred W. Dean, director of the Philadelphia school system's office of security. "No matter how well defined your pedagogical programs are, they won't succeed without providing a safe environment to learn.''

Fiscal 'Double Whammy'

But the increasing emphasis on security has produced a fiscal "double whammy'' for urban schools, according to Milton Bins, deputy director of the Council of the Great City Schools. They must now juggle educational expenditures with a new competitor for funds: high-cost protection measures.

"We talk about effective education, and then we have to stand back and use instructional funds to pay for protecting our children against the ills of society,'' noted Wesley C. Mitchell, assistant chief of school police for the Los Angeles schools.

For smaller districts, cost has been a factor that often rules out potentially effective anti-crime programs.

"If we've got a choice of cutting reading teachers or cutting violent-crime counselors, the counselors will be the first to go,'' said Robert W. Long, assistant superintendent for school services in Milwaukee. Last week, the city's board of education decided to drop a $229,000 pilot program to provide special counseling and support to minority teen-agers because it was too expensive.

But in Los Angeles, schools pay out about $6 million each year to repair the damages resulting from vandalism and theft. And local lawyers advertise on television their skill at processing liability lawsuits against schools. (See related story on this page.)

It was the high cost of not providing crime-prevention stategies, in fact, that persuaded California legislators to move on school security.

California's 'Right' to Safety

California is the only state that guarantees a safe, secure, and peaceful school environment in its constitution. The guarantee came as a result of a 1982 voter-approved referendum, and it has given rise to a flood of lawsuits against districts filed by victims of violence in the schools.

Passage of that constitutional amendment has given rise to a series of other bills on school-security matters, including one that would require each school district to develop a "Safe Schools Plan.'' The plans would ensure that districts are complying with the constitutional guarantee.

Another bill, passed two years ago, requires all districts to report accurate crime statistics to the state every year. Failure to comply could result in the state's withholding up to half of the local superintendent's salary.

Last month, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig released the results of the second annual school-crime report, which showed a decrease in substance abuse and property crimes, but a 4 percent increase in the number of personal-injury crimes, including assault, robbery, sex offenses, and homicide. And these occurred mainly in middle schools.

Dolores F. Farrell, a state crime-prevention specialist, noted that the number of districts reporting this year was not consistent with last year's compilation and said that it would take another five years "to get the glitches out'' of the system.

But the report is useful, she said, because it draws public attention to the need for preventative programs at the middle-school level--or, preferably, in the elementary grades.

The goal in California, Ms. Farrell said, is to create an "umbrella of prevention'' that deals with the full gamut of interrelated problems in the crime-and-violence equation, from gangs to a child's self esteem.

A 14-Point Plan

At the end of the month, the Commission on Education Quality, a task force appointed by Governor Deukmejian, will make recommendations on how to improve the state's schools, including a 14-point plan for increasing campus-security measures.

John R. Burton, a consultant for the Los Angeles County schools who served on the commission, said that the 14 points are likely to include the following recommendations:

  • That teachers and administrators be trained in school crime-prevention and safety issues as a requirement for certification;
  • That a school-safety institute be created as an independent agency to regulate that certification, as well as to collect resources and information on safety issues;
  • That any plans to construct school buildings first be approved by a special school-security engineer; and
  • That a state task force be created to train teams to offer counseling after campus traumas, such as shootings and murders.

The full plan is expected to be made public when it is presented to the Governor on June 28, Mr. Burton said.

Schools across the nation are looking at California's model "with a magnifying glass,'' he added.

Personnel or Hardware?

Eyes are also focused on New York City, where controversial new proposals have rekindled the debate over whether to spend security dollars on personnel or hardware.

Last month, New York City's new schools chancellor, Richard R. Green, together with Mayor Edward I. Koch and police officials, proposed a package of security measures, including the use of metal detectors, electronically locked doors, and "panic buttons,'' or silent buzzers, in each classroom to enable teachers to summon help when needed.

Union officials have applauded the proposals, saying that teachers are becoming more and more afraid to step into the city's classrooms.

Though the pricetag of the proposed measures is estimated to be in the millions, there has been no detailed discussion of cost, according to Henry R. Murphy, deputy director of security for the city's schools, who is studying how to implement the plan.

As the nation's largest school district, New York City currently spends the most on security, with a $40-million budget and a staff of about 2,100.

The effectiveness of security "hardware,'' especially metal detectors, has been hotly debated in the school community, Mr. Murphy said. But the time may have come, he added, to test theory with practice.

"We're going to have to try them and see what happens.''

'Not the Answer

In Detroit, where three years ago the city school district became the first in the nation to install standing metal detectors at entrances, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged the practice as a violation of students' constitutional rights.

Frank Blount, the city's school-security director, said officials have since modified their use of detectors, employing them only when a student is suspected of carrying a weapon, or when there is reason to believe that gang violence may be imminent.

"Metal detectors are a stop-gap measure that makes it easy for politicians to show people that they are doing something about school crime,'' Mr. Blount said. "They are not the answer.''

Detroit has also developed a comprehensive crime-intervention plan that is currently being reorganized, according to Mr. Blount. Changes will be announced within the next three weeks, he said, declining to elaborate.

Mr. Dean in Philadelphia, however, said that though metal detectors are expensive and "problematic,'' other factors make it necessary in some cities to find a balance between increasing the security force and using available technology.

Philadelphia schools, which have a $22-million budget for security, may be installing an electronic door-lock system soon, he said.

The city's principals had been fined for chaining the school fire doors closed, and city fire officials had warned them that they may be held personally liable in the event of a fire.

The new system will solve the problem, Mr. Dean said, by monitoring the doors, as well as serving as a fire-alarm system that automatically opens locked doors in the event of fire.

Focus on Behavior

Such expensive hardware has its place, said Larry Burgan, chief of Baltimore's school police, but there are ways to be successful without "throwing a lot of money at the problem.''

In the 1983-84 school year, Baltimore logged 122 incidents involving students bringing firearms to school.

Last year, that number was down to 45, according to Mr. Burgan.

The Baltimore security plan focuses on policies meant to control student behavior, such as the ban on coats and bags that could conceal weapons, and on measures to keep nonstudent intruders off school property, such as the identification tags.

Students caught with weapons will be expelled, and teachers found with weapons will be fired.

The city has also established a school-crime hotline for students to call in anonymous tips to police. And the 105-officer school-police force holds regular workshops on school crime that are mandatory for all building administrators.

Mr. Burgan's security plan is similar to a model developed by the National Alliance for Safe Schools, which is funded by the U.S. Justice Department.

'School-Safety Audit'

According to Robert J. Rubel, director of the organization, it conducts "school-safety audits'' and tailors the model to the specific needs of a district.

"We feel that knowledge is power,'' Mr. Rubel said. "A principal will know what works if he can identify the problem.''

Mr. Rubel said that the model has been used in Anaheim, Calif., Jacksonville, Fla., and Rockford, Ill., and that next year he will experiment with expanding it to a statewide program in Missouri.

Though his group has sometimes competed with the National School Safety Center for funding, Mr. Rubel said, both agencies agree on one point: that national statistics on school crime should be collected. Neither organization, their officials say, now has the funds to undertake the task.

The last comprehensive report on school crime, which was released in 1978 by the National Institute of Education, estimated that an average of 282,000 students and 5,000 teachers were assaulted in schools each year.

Ronald D. Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center, said those levels have not declined in the intervening decade.

"We've got to make a choice,'' he said. echoing Jesse Jackson "Are we going to support our children in the juvenile-justice system, or in the education system?''

"Violence is a self-perpetuating process,'' he said. "Someone's got to stop it.''

Vol. 07, Issue 38

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