As Students Return, Focus Is on Security
In the minds of many educators, parents, and students around the country, the foremost question as the new school year begins remains the same one that cast a pall over the final weeks of the last one: Could it happen here?
School officials in virtually every district large and small--rural, urban, and suburban--have in the months since the Columbine High School shootings re- examined their safety and security procedures and in many cases have tightened them.
In Houston, an elementary school now requires visitors to use a doorbell before they enter. Students in Tampa, Fla., and Chicago face metal-detector searches every day. Many districts have banned or restricted students' carrying of book bags or installed video monitoring systems. Others have done away with lockers.
The intense activity comes in spite of new research showing school-related violence on the decline and as U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley insists that schools are some of the "safest places for our children to be."
David Friedberg, the chief of security for the 158,000-student Hillsborough County district, which includes Tampa, agrees that schools generally are safe.
But it's the chance, slight but real, that something terrible could happen that keeps Mr. Friedberg and his staff hopping.
The night before the Columbine incident, he was at a high school PTA meeting, he recalled. A parent asked him why school employees use metal detectors to search students every day in Tampa-area schools.
With training, students who ‘would be more the bully or
teasing type, they see it from the other student's
Mr. Friedberg replied that if a shooting ever happened, he didn't want that same parent asking: "Why didn't I do something?"
"I haven't heard that question asked since," he said in a recent interview.
Vigilance Despite Numbers
New data suggest that the threat of school violence is less than in previous years. The number of firearms found at U.S. schools dropped by 30 percent in 1997-98 compared with the previous school year, according to a recent U.S. Department of Education report.
And slightly fewer students claim to have brought a gun to school during 1997-98, according to recently released federal data.
Mr. Riley and leaders of school associations have used such reports to emphasize that most schools are safe.
But Mr. Friedberg and many other school administrators say that schools must be vigilant against any threat, and that they must respond to the emotional concerns raised by the Columbine shootings.
"All of us have to wake up and get our head out of the sand," said Mr. Friedberg, a former Air Force police captain. "There is a certain segment of our youth that certainly is more violent than ever before."
Ratcheting Up Security
Chicago this year is requiring walk- through metal detectors at all middle and high schools--and two hand-held detectors for each elementary school.
"I don't think it's extreme at all," Paul G. Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, told the Chicago Tribune last month. "Listen, we have an obligation to provide for their safety first. When they're 18, they can worry about some of these civil liberties issues."
And at Columbine High School itself, where 14 students and one teacher died April 20, officials of the Jefferson County, Colo., district have adopted stringent new security measures.
The school installed surveillance cameras, hired an extra security guard, and began requiring employees to use electronic identification cards to enter. In addition, staff members received diversity training and instruction in how to spot troubled teenagers, said district spokeswoman Marilyn Saltzman.
Armed school officers have patrolled the campus since the school year began last month, mostly to keep away unwanted tourists. Mental-health counselors run a "safe room" where students and employees can chat, cry, or find help.
Schools throughout the 88,000-student district are taking many of the same steps other districts have taken since the tragedy--extra surveillance, training for educators, and restrictions on campus visitors.
But no school can be made perfectly safe, Ms. Saltzman said. "You could turn schools into armed camps and still not make guarantees."
Taking the Right Steps
Kenneth Trump, a Cleveland-based school safety consultant and a former head of security for the Cleveland district, says the main precaution schools can take is to have detailed safety plans that are tested often and have exact reasons for being in place.
"Why are you doing it, and are you doing it effectively?" Mr. Trump said schools should ask themselves. "Don't just have a plan for the sake of having a plan."
The temptation for many schools is to take action that's "tangible, that they can show off to students, to parents and to the media," Mr. Trump said.
If schools are going to require ID badges and security cameras, or add resource officers or any of the other popular security measures, there ought to be a good reason, he said. "There's nothing wrong with any of those, as long as you're doing it for a purpose," he said.
The Other Side of Safety
An important element in any school safety plan, Mr. Trump added, is training for employees--including support workers such as bus drivers and office staff--to deal with crises and to provide help for troubled students.
Steps toward better security at schools are only half the battle, many educators say.
Many schools are working to nip problems before they ever lead to sparks of violence. It's a matter of mental health, not muscle.
Jennifer Kitson sees this theory acted out in her schools every day. She's the mother of two boys, and also a school psychologist at two elementary schools in Hays, Kan., a town of 18,000 halfway between Kansas City and Denver.
Ms. Kitson is a firm believer in conflict-resolution training for students, and says such efforts can lead down the road to healthier family and workplace relationships.
"What we've observed actually is those children ... that would be more the bully or teasing type, they see it from the other student's perspective," Ms. Kitson said.
Like Ms. Kitson, Secretary Riley suggests that schools look beyond traditional security issues to find better solutions for students who need help.
"We do know a considerable amount about what we can do to free schools of violence," Mr. Riley said during a recent national teleconference on school safety.
He noted the importance of cooperation between local organizations--law enforcement, religious groups, and others--in safeguarding children, and emphasized the importance of school safety plans.
"And perhaps most of all," Secretary Riley added, "we need to make sure that in every community, in school, every child is connected to at least one responsible, caring adult."
School in the Safety Age
Twenty-five minutes a day.
That's at least how much time Houston high school principal Lawrence Allen Jr. figured students need to express themselves and learn about things other than science or literature.
When school began a few weeks ago, Mr. Allen's students found a new policy requiring them to attend 25-minute advisory periods every morning.
Guidance counselors will use the period to talk about resolving conflicts peacefully. Teachers also can simply spend time talking with students about events in their own lives or current events.
Most schools across Houston are tightening security, by creating a district crisis response team, adding security personnel, or buying two-way radios.
But Mr. Allen said one of his main concerns is spending more time simply talking and working with students on a personal level.
"We thought that was the greatest thing--hearing from them what's going on in their lives," said Mr. Allen, a graduate of Jones High School who took over as the principal there this summer.
His school sits on Houston's south side, where the average family earns about $15,000 a year, he said, and the student body is 45 percent Hispanic, 45 percent African-American. The school draws some of its 1,500 students from beyond the neighborhood through an academic magnet program.
This year, Jones High students must keep their book bags in their lockers, if they bring them at all. "And girls can't wear big purses," said junior Angela Juarez. That, she said, is because "if they have a gun or knife in there, you can tell."
Samantha Harper, a junior, said the safety measures appear to work. The only weapon she's ever seen on campus was a box cutter, and that was two years ago.
"I really haven't had a day when I felt unsafe at school," Ms. Harper said, adding she likes the new advisory period. "Some time in the year a student might need help, and it gives you time to talk to that teacher if you can't after school."
Besides additional police patrols and new cameras to prevent office thefts, Mr. Allen said other measures aren't necessary. "We don't want anybody in a panic," he said.
Bringing Peace Home
The focus on school security has moved far beyond district offices and PTA meetings. A recent meeting at Indiana University brought together a wide range of people to talk about youth violence, including the Dalai Lama.
Conference organizer and education professor Jonathan Plucker said the Buddhist leader talked about the part religious faith can play in keeping schools and neighborhoods safer.
"People are finally saying the faith-based community may have a role in this. It's not a liberal idea or a conservative idea anymore," Mr. Plucker said. "They have to go together."
In Springfield, Ore., Gary Emery and his 650- member evangelical Christian congregation seem to have brought those two sides together. Mr. Emery's son dodged the cafeteria gunfire in May 1998 that killed two and wounded 22 at the city's Thurston High School.
After the shooting, the pastor and fellow members of Calvary Temple helped provide a healing balm to some in the city of 45,000 just outside larger Eugene, Ore. Emery also helped organize an anniversary memorial service this year.
"A tragedy draws everybody together, but it also shows you how far apart we have been," Mr. Emery said.
"We could do so much better together than we try to do separately" to help troubled young people, he added. "When you build those kinds of communities, you're aware of what's in their head and in their heart."
Vol. 19, Issue 1, Pages 1, 14-15Published in Print: September 8, 1999, as As Students Return, Focus Is on Security