School Choice & Charters

Private Schools Put Spotlight on Safety

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 25, 2005 8 min read
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Administrators and students at private schools tend to see their schools as safer than public schools. But spurred in part by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many private schools have joined the national push to revamp campus safety plans.

“Our schools, like many public schools, are not islands unto themselves,” said Michael J. Caruso, the assistant superintendent for secondary schools for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, who has been urging the federal government to provide more support to Catholic schools for emergency preparedness. “[Our schools] exist in relationship to very strategic potential targets.”

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Chart: Private and Public School Safety

Some Catholic schools in the Washington area, for instance, are located close to the U.S. Capitol, near the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Institutes of Health, and other buildings that could be terrorist targets, Mr. Caruso said.

Kenneth S. Trump, the president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, applauds private schools for increasingly recognizing they could be targets of outside attacks, but faults them as playing down possible harm to students from internal threats as well.

“The message we have to send is they are not any different [from public schools] in terms of their possible vulnerability to violence from within or from the outside,” he said.

While consulting on crisis planning at some private schools, Mr. Trump said, he has found that school officials’ perception that their schools’ culture keeps students safe is an obstacle to carrying out basic security procedures. Such precautions include requiring all school visitors to sign in and providing adult supervision when students leave school at the end of the day, he said.

In addition, private schools tend not to practice safety procedures, Mr. Trump said.

“Public schools have improved dramatically in not only having lockdowns but practicing them,” he said. “The majority of private schools that have lockdowns on paper still aren’t practicing them. They say, ‘We don’t want to create a climate of fear and alter our supportive culture.’ ”

Private School Perceptions

National data don’t go very far in painting a picture of the security precautions that private schools have put in place.

Students at private schools view their schools as safer than students at public schools do, according to responses collected in 2003 by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics and released in the report “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2004.”

One and a half percent of students ages 12 to 18 at private schools, for instance, said they avoided certain places in school because they thought someone might attack or harm them there, while 4.2 percent of their counterparts at public schools reported that same answer. Only 3.9 percent of students at private schools reported that street gangs were present in their schools or on their way to and from school, while 22.5 percent of public school students of the same ages reported the presence of gangs. (See chart.)

Findings from the most recently released Schools and Staffing Survey of the NCES, conducted during the 1999-2000 school year and released in May 2002, show that 8.2 percent of private schools had a daily presence of police or security personnel that school year, while 45.4 percent of public schools did. But that was before the 2001 terrorist attacks, which caused many private schools to revisit their emergency plans.

The NCES doesn’t have post-9/11 data, for instance, on how many private schools have crisis plans and practice them, or on how many of them employ security personnel.

News reports show that private schools aren’t immune from violent incidents or threats.

Since the 1999-2000 school year, Mr. Trump has kept a database of such incidents at both private and public schools, based mostly on news articles. Thirteen of the 639 incidents in the database involve private schools. Out of 158 incidents of school violence that resulted in deaths, only two occurred at private schools. Those were both student suicides.

Nonfatal violence or threats at private schools include an evacuation after a pipe bomb was found in a school, two cases in which robbery suspects entered Catholic elementary schools, and the injury of nine Catholic elementary pupils and a teacher by a soda-bottle bomb planted by teenagers who weren’t enrolled at the school.

Besides the two suicides—one at a New York City yeshiva, the Kavunas Halev school in Brooklyn, and the other at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.—one of the most serious acts of violence occurring at a private school involved a 14-year-old girl who fired a handgun into a crowded cafeteria at Bishop Neumann High School in Williamsport, Pa., in March 2001. The incident at the Catholic school injured a 13-year-old girl.

External Threats Emphasized

Private school administrators say they worry much more about possible external threats than internal ones.

Burt Carney, the director for legal and legislative issues for the Association of Christian Schools International in Colorado Springs, Colo., said the small size of the association’s schools and the fact that many students in them have received strong religious instruction deters student-on-student violence.

“Some of these incidents [of student-on-student violence] have been in very large schools where there is a lot of bullying going on, where students are in cliques,” which isn’t likely to be the case at ACSI schools, Mr. Carney said.

That was a sentiment expressed by other private school officials, who said the small class sizes at their schools and tendency for adults to know students well make it unlikely that one of their students would go on a violent rampage.

On the other hand, the terrorist attacks on the United States more than three years ago have led private school associations to do more to help their schools focus on emergency preparedness. The ACSI, the National Association of Independent Schools, and the National Catholic Educational Association, for example, provide Web resources for schools or have held sessions at conferences on the subject.

Since September 2001, the Shady Side Academy, a 1,000-student independent school with three campuses in Pittsburgh, has created a new job position: director of health and safety. Timothy K. Giel, who got the job, led efforts to prepare a handbook for every classroom with instructions for what adults should do to respond to various emergencies, from an earthquake to a student assault. The 280 K-5 students who attend school on the academy’s campus in the heart of Pittsburgh recently practiced an evacuation to a local museum.

Also since the 9/11 attacks, the 550-student Santa Catalina School in Monterey, Calif., has updated its emergency plan to include instructions on how faculty and staff members should react to possible radiological, biological, or chemical attacks. The private pre-K-12 school, which has both boarding and day students, trained the faculty on such scenarios.

In addition, private school associations circulated widely an Oct. 6, 2004, letter by Eugene W. Hickok, the outgoing deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, that spelled out what schools should do to prepare for a possible terrorist attack. The letter relayed lessons gleaned from the takeover last fall of a school in Beslan, Russia, by terrorists that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of schoolchildren.

Jewish Schools Watchful

School security experts say that Jewish schools have probably done more than many other kinds of private schools to address the possibility of outside threats of violence.

Marc N. Kramer, the executive director of RAVSAK: the Jewish Community Day School Network, which is based in New York, agreed.

“For a very long time, Jewish day schools have had in mind the notion that Middle East events could have certain ramifications in the United States. The ongoing presence of anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe has also contributed to our vigilance,” Mr. Kramer said.

He recalled that when he worked at a Jewish day school in El Paso, Texas, in the early 1990s, the administrators took many safety precautions. “The doors were locked,” he said. “You had to get buzzed into the building. If there was a car sitting in the parking lot that no one knew, it was looked into. Kids were told, ‘Don’t leave your backpacks unattended.’ ”

Jewish nonprofit organizations were among the groups that lobbied Congress to set aside some homeland-security funds for the current fiscal year, 2005, to be used only by nonprofit groups, including private schools.

Congress responded by appropriating $25 million of homeland-security money for that purpose, though nothing in the law had kept nonprofit organizations, including religious schools, from receiving such aid through their states previously, according to Marc T. Short, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

Already in fiscal 2004, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich of Maryland saw to it that a Jewish school—the 1,500-student Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md.—received $100,000 of federal homeland-security money. To protect the school’s security system, Jonathan Cannon, the head of the school, declined to elaborate on how the money was spent.

Mr. Caruso of the Archdiocese of Washington has obtained the help of the Homeland Security Department to assess a sample of the security plans of Catholic schools in the nation’s capital this year. It’s part of his ongoing effort to get funding and other help from the federal government for private schools on security matters.

“You can unwittingly create gaps in your otherwise improved system of security,” he said, “when you’ve got a couple of nonpublic schools and a public school in the same proximity, if you aren’t ensuring those baseline protections are in place” for all schools.

A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Private Schools Put Spotlight on Safety


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