School & District Management

School Safety Lessons Learned: Urban Districts Report Progress

By Darcia Harris Bowman — May 30, 2001 14 min read
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When a 15-year-old student showed a friend the 9 mm pistol he’d smuggled into Huguenot High School here late last month, he set off a chain reaction. The friend and other students told a teacher, the teacher informed a principal, and the principal and police promptly confronted the student and found the weapon in his backpack.

It was the second time in five days a Richmond youth was arrested for bringing a gun to school after a student tipped off adults.

Sitting in his office eyeing a police snapshot of the weapon a week later, the city’s longtime school security chief, Floyd A. Wiggins, saw affirmation for his 20-year effort to create safer learning environments for the students here. He also saw a warning.

The students and teachers “know what rumors mean, what news reports mean, what the anniversary of Columbine means,” Mr. Wiggins said. “But not everything we’ve done has been successful, and we’re quick to recognize that. [School violence] is a problem you won’t police your way out of.”

In the fight against school violence, urban centers like Richmond are the veterans. All the most common indicators for violence—broken homes, poverty, drugs, gangs, guns—showed up in their schools first. Many conventional security tactics were tested there first as well, including armed officers on campus, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and surprise locker sweeps.

Yet in all the continuing national talk about school violence, many people believe city schools are often overlooked. Most of the attention is now on suburban and rural schools and has been since October 1997, when a 16-year-old sophomore went on a shooting rampage at a high school in the quiet community of Pearl, Miss.

Other shootings followed in or near schools in Paducah, Ky.; Springfield, Ore.; and Jonesboro, Ark.

And, then, in April 1999, the bloodiest school shooting in the nation’s history left 14 students and a teacher dead at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., south of Denver. This spring, a teenage boy in the San Diego suburb of Santee, Calif., opened fire in a school restroom, killing two students.

One after another, those incidents shook communities that many people believed were immune to such crimes and shifted public attention away from the violence that still plagues many urban schools.

But some educators and school safety experts warn that overlooking urban districts—and thereby failing to learn from their experiences with violence—could have serious repercussions for all schools.

“Almost any epidemic starts with a high-risk population and then spreads out from there,” said James Garbarino, the director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University and the author of the 1999 book Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How WeCan Save Them. “The same risk factors that predicted violence in the inner-city schools are now more evident in the suburban schools, but there has been a reluctance to see any parallels between what’s happening to poor black and Hispanic kids and how that has anything to do with middle- and upper-class white kids.”

A Constant Threat

While school shootings in suburban and rural schools have made national headlines in recent years, violence remains a pressing problem for many city schools.

Nationally, the number of nonfatal violent crimes committed in or near schools—including simple assault, rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault—held fairly steady in the cities from 1992 through 1998, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

"[Schools in urban areas] are larger, more diverse, and include a higher proportion of very needy, angry youth,” said Raymond P. Lorion, a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education and an expert in clinical psychology.

In the public schools here in Richmond, the Virginia state capital, weapons offenses fell sharply from 69 in 1994 to 29 in 1999. But the number of recorded assaults reached a high of 128 in 1994, dipped to 92 in 1999, and rose again to 126 the following year.

The appearance of an increase in assaults is in part due to a change in reporting, Mr. Wiggins said. With police and superintendents now required to track crimes, violent or otherwise, some numbers have jumped.

“The reality across the nation is that for a long while, most schools did not have instruments or guidelines for reporting these incidents,” Mr. Wiggins said, “and there was a culture of suppression because many principals saw reporting crimes as a reflection on them personally.”

Even with the new reporting guidelines, some urban districts are showing promising signs. For instance, Houston, a 210,000-student district praised by the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, William Modzeleski, for its safety programs, violent crime was down 20 percent last year from the 1998-99 school year. School-related robberies, vandalism, burglary, assault, theft, and drug violations also dropped significantly.

Still, one Houston student died in October 1999 from a stab wound in a middle school, the first on-campus fatality in the district in nine years, and arson incidents in the district increased from six to nine between the 1998-99 school year and last year. Annual weapons offenses held steady at 33 during the same period.

“One of the lessons urban districts have to offer is the fact that you have to pay attention to this thing,” Mr. Modzeleski said. “I think urban principals and superintendents understand that the problems of communities and families come into the schools. They know you can’t keep them out.”

Preventing Problems

As Houston’s schools recorded their sizable drop in violent crime last year, the district’s team of 17 certified psychologists remained busy responding to and trying to head off crises.

“We make about 10,000 contacts with students a year,” said Pauline A. Clansy, the psychological-services manager for the school system. “We are the professionals of last resort. When the principal, nurse, and school counselors can’t handle it, they call us.”

Ms. Clansy’s staff was called in more than 600 times in the 1998-99 school year to deal with students suffering from mood disorders, intervened in about 500 cases of students dealing with the deaths of family or friends, and responded to nearly 400 calls prompted by violent or aggressive acts by students.

Her department also handled hundreds of cases related to substance abuse, weapons and drug possession, suicides and suicide threats, and murder threats, among other problems.

More than 1,600 cases that year were “behavioral problems.”

“We’ve always believed we could have a major [shooting] incident here,” Ms. Clansy said. "[Suburban and rural schools] thought they couldn’t. Therefore, they ignored the clues. We don’t ignore anything.”

When urban students’ problems do reach the level of gunplay, experts say, the shooting is typically targeted at individuals for specific reasons—rather than the random killing that seems to be a trademark of the high- profile shootings in rural and suburban schools. Still, the results are often deadly.

In March, a 17-year-old high school student shot a 16-year-old sophomore execution-style in front of a high school in Gary, Ind.; two Detroit students and a teacher were grazed by gunfire in February from an unidentified shooter in the band room of a high school; and a 17-year-old Baltimore student died in January after being shot three times outside a high school.

All those incidents took place on school grounds, and all happened in city schools. But only the death in Gary, which came on the heels of several shootings in suburban schools, drew national attention—and even that was short-lived.

“The threat of violence in urban schools is constant. There’s almost a mundane quality to it,” said Pedro A. Noguera, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education and an expert on urban schools. “Even the more extreme forms of violence don’t get the attention, due to both a shortage of resources in urban areas and the way violence there is normalized.”

Some educators, however, argue that the problems of urban schools are often exaggerated, leading people to believe they are far more dangerous than suburban or rural schools.

“There is a public myth that inner city schools have violent environments—the old ‘Blackboard Jungle’ idea inherited from the past,” said Betty Morgan, the chief academic officer of the 105,000-student Baltimore city schools. “Having worked in the suburbs and being responsible for day-to-day school operations, as I am here, I can tell you that there were an equal number, if not more, of daily incidents of disruptions [in the suburban schools] serious enough to reach my office.”

Much of the violence associated with city schools are actually fights that start in the surrounding neighborhoods and are settled on school property or spill into the schools themselves, said Ms. Morgan, who worked for the Montgomery County schools in the Maryland suburbs of Washington before taking her job in Baltimore.

“I would challenge you to visit any of our high schools and see for yourself that the atmospheres are calm, orderly and learning is taking place,” she said.

In the Media Spotlight

After decades of being viewed as ground zero for school violence, many urban districts are content to let suburban and rural schools have their turn in the harsh glare of the media spotlight.

Detroit, for instance, made national headlines throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, when gunplay and armed warfare among young people there was commonplace. The first student murdered in the city’s schools was a star athlete, shot and killed in 1987 in the hallway of Murray-Wright High School by a 14-year-old gunman.

A district spokesman said the city’s schools have changed dramatically in the years since Detroit topped the nation in homicides, and “Murder City” unofficially replaced “Motor City” as the city’s nickname. Even so, the principal of Murray-Wright had no interest in talking to a reporter about those changes. And district officials did not provide violent-crime statistics for Detroit schools despite repeated requests for that information.

“Folks here have been extremely reluctant to have light focused on school violence when it has not been a headliner for the district in quite some time,” district spokesman Stan Childress wrote in a recent e-mail. “The few violent acts that have occurred in recent years have mostly been outside of or near our schools. Our schools, for whatever reasons, now tend to be among the safest environments in the community for our students. We hope it stays that way.”

Detroit’s reaction is not unusual for urban districts when it comes to the topic of school violence. But the Detroit schools’ absence from the national stage doesn’t mean they don’t have troubles.

Just this month in the district, the alleged rape of a 12-year-old female student at Hutchins Middle School prompted Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Duggan to consider filing criminal charges against district and school administrators on the grounds that they had failed to provide a safe environment for students.

One of the mistakes some urban districts have made, observers say, is to try to downplay violence problems in order to project a more positive district image.

“There’s a general sense that urban schools are dealing with this problem and understand it, but that’s not necessarily true,” said Jennifer E. Obidah, an assistant professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied the discipline policies of urban schools in the South. “Because they started with the stigma of being violent, many urban schools have tried to cover up the problem, and that hasn’t given them viable space to deal openly and effectively with [violence].”

Moreover, she said, many urban districts have overreacted to the intense public focus on the shootings in the suburban schools.

“For as long as the urban schools have been dealing with violence, the media attention on the suburban violence is driving policy in the urban schools,” Ms. Obidah said. “Urban schools are getting more paranoid about the potential for violence and using zero-tolerance policies in such a way that kids are getting suspended for lesser and lesser infractions.”

Harvard’s Mr. Noguera added that many of the remedies used today by urban schools only exacerbate the problem of violence.

“‘Zero tolerance’ has become ‘zero understanding,’” he said. “Design and staffing of schools are driven by security concerns, but no thought is given to how these designs and atmospheres make students and [teachers] feel. If we use prisons as our models for safe schools—well, prisons are not safe places, right?”

“Safety comes from human relations,” he added. “I’d say we’d do much better to invest in counselors than armed guards.”

Policing Schools

As police officer Edward Rendon patrolled the grounds of Houston’s 3,200-student Lamar High School on a recent afternoon, he rounded a corner at the rear of the building and spotted two boys lounging on the steps near one of the side doors. “Those two shouldn’t be there,” he said.

But in the time it took Mr. Rendon to scan the track-and-field area—a spot where fights often break out between rival gangs—and turn back toward the building, the two students were gone. “See, they know,” the policeman said with a grin.

Mr. Rendon and Marvin Lee, members of the Houston Independent School District’s nearly 190-officer police force, share responsibility for the safety of Lamar High. They know where fights typically erupt, they track the shifting alliances and flag colors of local gangs, and they even hear about conflicts that take place off school property.

The two officers have the help of surveillance cameras positioned throughout the school, but most of their information comes from the students themselves.

Could a Columbine-style shooting strike Lamar? “You never know,” Mr. Rendon replied, “but I think we’d hear about it before it happened.”

The Houston schools have had a police force since the late 1980s. Before the bloodshed at Columbine High School two years ago, the district already had 177 officers as well as metal detectors in some schools.

After the Columbine massacre, while U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige was still the district’s superintendent, the police department began conducting surprise weapons and drug searches of students and lockers, using hand-held metal detectors and police dogs, and school leaders created a rapid-response team of officers with special weapons and tactics training.

Houston schools are also free to place stationary metal detectors at their main entrances—and some do—but the district police believe the surprise searches are a more effective deterrent.

District Police Chief John B. Blackburn said a police presence in the city’s schools is essential for preventing an incident like that at Columbine. But he stressed that presence is only one piece of the puzzle.

“There is no way the police department can take credit for all the good things going on in this district,” Mr. Blackburn said. “Everybody has to be involved, teachers have to take ownership, and principals set the tone. We’re a part of the solution.”

‘It’s Gotten a Lot Better’

On a recent Wednesday morning, meanwhile, calm reigned in Richmond’s Gilpin Court neighborhood. Standing outside his headquarters at the old Baker Elementary School, Mr. Wiggins watched with a measure of satisfaction as a young girl rode her bicycle past several parked police cruisers and the sun-baked public housing that lines the streets of this impoverished section on the north side of the city.

“Just a few years back, most homicides you read about in the newspaper here happened in this neighborhood,” the 49-year-old security chief said. “It’s gotten a lot better since my department moved here. This is how it is most of the time now.”

One of the lessons Richmond learned under fire is that nothing short of a broad-based community effort will make schools safer.

In 1995, Mr. Wiggins assembled 77 people representing all facets of the Richmond community to draw up a comprehensive plan for school safety.

In four months, the group produced a plan that still serves as a foundation for every one of the district’s security and discipline policies, from its use of indoor and outdoor surveillance cameras and the assignment of armed city police officers to all secondary schools, to its focus on truancy reduction and providing alternative classrooms for disruptive students.

“It has to be comprehensive and the [school safety] consultants don’t always tell you that,” Mr. Wiggins said, pointing to a copy of the 40-page framework the group produced. “If my parents, the commonwealth’s attorney, the administrators, the teachers, police, and the children hadn’t signed off on this, it would just sit on a shelf. They were the ones who said, ‘We want to see police in the schools.’ It was no work of genius on our part; it came from that community mind map.”

One thing the group agreed on was the need to look outside of Richmond—to cities like Los Angeles for solutions for dealing with gangs, to Palm Beach, Calif., for ways to ease tensions between rich and poor students, and to New York City for ideas on improving race relations.

“We spend an awful lot of money growing programs, when much of what we need is there for the asking,” Mr. Wiggins said. “I don’t always have to create the answer. It’s my job to find it, and chances are it’s already out there and working.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as School Safety Lessons Learned: Urban Districts Report Progress


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