State-of-the-Art School Seeks To Take a Bite Out of Crime

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Thirty-seven surveillance cameras. Six metal detectors. Five full-time police officers. Intruder-resistant gates.

This may sound like an average correctional facility, but it's actually the newest addition to the Dallas public school system.

Townview Magnet Center opened its $41 million high-tech doors last month. District officials say this 2,172-student magnet high school is state-of-the-art in many ways: It includes well-equipped science laboratories, a minihospital, and a 350-seat theater, but it also was built with security in mind.

"This is a school for the 21st century. The design itself reduces crime," C.W. Burruss, the district's director of safety and security, said on the first day of school.

As Mr. Burruss looks out over the red-brick school spanning three city blocks, he points out some of its safety features: maple trees that will not be allowed to grow large enough to obstruct the building; perimeter lights that illuminate the grounds like a stadium at night to deter intruders; and the gates--single rows of 8-foot iron poles--that appear impossible to scale.

"You've got to understand, this is the inner city. This is the 'hood," Mr. Burruss said, pointing across the street to a motel that he said is frequented by prostitutes.

"There are people on the outside that would love to disrupt this educational activity," he said, as the voices of school patrol officers crackled from the radio he carries. "And that's not going to happen."

Townview, some school-security experts say, is the ultimate "safe school."

For years, thousands of public schools have been using such security devices as metal detectors and electronic alarms. A few schools have even incorporated safety into their architectural designs.

But Townview, the experts say, does both. It combines the most modern safety designs with the latest in school-security technology.

"This represents a school's best mechanical effort to create a safe campus for students," said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. "The district ought to be commended for taking action."

Key to Academics

Townview Magnet Center is the result of a 1976 court order to desegregate the Dallas public schools.

The idea was to place a magnet school in a poor, inner-city area with a large minority population. It would offer strong academic and vocational programs to all students in the district, according to Leon Hays, one of the district's assistant superintendents.

But the school system didn't have the money to build the school until 1992, when the city raised the money through a bond program.

Townview, so named because of its view of the Dallas skyline, combines six of the district's magnet schools and offers concentrations in business, education, government and law, health, and science, as well as a talented and gifted program.

Students from throughout the district attend the school. Most are members of minorities, and 80 percent of Townview's students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, according to school officials.

No minimum grade-point average is required to attend Townview, but students must be in good academic standing when they enroll.

Principal Ora Lee Watson says that making sure the school is a safe place helps protect the school's academic mission.

"We don't want to be caught not doing everything we can," Ms. Watson said. "We want to be proactively involved in the safety of our students."

School safety also means a strict discipline code that includes expulsion for carrying weapons, a dress code, and a mandatory photo-identification card for each student.

"Just because they're in a magnet school doesn't mean they won't commit crimes," Ms. Watson said as she walked through the school's corridors at lunchtime. "Prisons are full of bright kids."

Someone To Watch Over Me

In the first-floor control room, school police officer Nicholas Valenzuela watches three television monitors mounted on the wall. They reflect the images of the cameras placed throughout the school.

On the screens, students run down stairs, cars are driven into parking lots, and students fiddle with the combinations on their lockers.

In one camera shot, two uniformed officers are shown guarding the school's front entrance.

Officer Valenzuela said the television monitors are watched by campus police 24 hours a day and that, in large part, is to safeguard school property.

Overall, students and parents welcome the school's investment in security, saying the technology makes them feel protected.

"I have to feel my child is safer there," said Evelyn Hicks, a school advisory-board member whose son attends Townview.

"There are security cameras in banks and department stores, so why not build schools with security measures when crimes are being committed," Ms. Hicks argued.

"It's a very good system," sophomore Ken Boyer said after clearing a metal-detector scan one morning. "I don't mind because I'm not going to do anything bad."

A Prison School?

But some students here said they feel ill at ease with cameras monitoring their movements. All this security gadgetry, they said, makes them feel more like prisoners than students.

"This whole project is a monster; it's overkill," said Adam Moomaw, a junior.

"They are monitoring the honors kids. It's a waste of time and money," he added.

"The security seems excessive," agreed Shannon Christopher, a 9th grader who said that having to wear identification cards is offensive. Mr. Burruss hopes that by next year students will also have to use cards with bar codes to enter the school.

Enola Aird, the director of the Safe Start Campaign at the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, agreed that an investment in high-tech security is the not the answer to the problem of school violence.

"You have to go back to basics to respond to the epidemic of violence in society in general," Ms. Aird said.

"The answer to school violence is a spiritual answer not a technological one," she said.

Besides, many students said, they could outsmart the technology if they wanted to.

"Anyone could get anything they wanted in here--guns, knives, drugs," one junior said. "The effort is futile."

Watching Townview

The school's police officers acknowledge that no security system is 100 percent effective.

But, they say, the metal detectors all students must pass through deter crime.

And the officers who walk around Townview Magnet Center from dawn to the closing bell say they are thankful for the landscaping, the bright lights, and the open design of the campus.

School-security experts likely will be watching Townview Magnet Center to determine whether a school that is engineered and equipped to prevent crime is, in fact, safer than one that is not.

No results from the school's safety efforts will be known until the district conducts an evaluation next year.

"The stage is set for a promising outcome," Mr. Stephens of the school-safety center said. "The test now is whether all this hardware will have an effect."

Vol. 15, Issue 01

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