School Climate & Safety

Strategies Shared at U.S. Safe Schools Gathering

By Lesli A. Maxwell — August 03, 2007 3 min read
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Preventing shootings and preparing for major crises in schools are as vital issues as ever for educators who gathered in the nation’s capital this week to discuss, debate, and advise one another on the sprawling range of health and safety matters in America’s schools.

With topics ranging from armed students storming campuses to schools’ responses to an influenza pandemic, more than 1,200 school administrators, police and security personnel, and mental-health providers were briefed on the ever-increasing role that schools must assume in preventing, responding, and coping with tragedy and catastrophe. The three-day annual conference is being sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of safe and drug-free schools.

In Thursday’s lunchtime address, Dr. Rajeev Venkayya, the special assistant to President Bush for biological defense policy, told conference participants that, just like a bomb scare or fire, schools must prepare for a flu pandemic in their communities. The pulmonary and critical-care specialist said school leaders need to be involved in planning for such an event with federal, state, and local emergency managers. For one, he said, leaders must be ready to deal with prolonged closures.

“Have you thought through the consequences of three months of school closure?,” Dr. Venkayya asked. “What does that mean for the most vulnerable kids, who are now going to be spending eight hours a day at home that they would normally spend in school? What social systems do you have in place to protect those kids?”

Keeping Out Guns

But to many at the conference, schools as targets of violence by outsiders and students who bring weapons on campus remain the most pressing and relevant safety concerns, especially following the 2006-07 school year, which was punctuated by high-profile incidents.

Last October, five Amish girls were fatally shot by an armed intruder who stormed their rural Pennsylvania schoolhouse, and in April, a college senior at Virginia Tech gunned down 32 students and faculty members in classrooms and a residence hall before killing himself.

Four big-city school district police chiefs drew a crowd of administrators and school security personnel who wanted to hear their strategies for keeping violent crime and guns off their campuses.

Andres Durbak, the director of safety and security for the 426,000-student Chicago district, said using metal detectors in the city’s high schools—often a controversial move—was key to driving down the number of guns brought to campuses. While more than 40 guns were confiscated on campuses during the 1997-98 school year, the number dropped to fewer than 30 once widespread use of metal detectors began the following school year, he said. In the 2006-07 academic year, only six guns were recovered from the city’s schools.

“Over a few years’ time, we changed the climate,” Mr. Durbak said. “Even the worst gangbanger knows that it’s the most foolish thing on earth to bring a gun to a Chicago school.”

In the 42,000-student Newark, N.J., public schools, Willie Freeman, the director of security services, said attendance was up and student behavior had improved over the 18 months since the district and local police set up a “safe corridors” program around most of the city’s schools. Enlisting parents, church parishioners, and local business owners to be out on the streets when students go to and from school has helped push gang members and drug dealers to other areas, he said.

“Now, our kids don’t have to start worrying at 1 o’clock in the afternoon about walking home from school and what they might encounter,” Mr. Freeman said.

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