Safe Havens

The rash of school shootings over the past year hit a nerve in the nation's collective consciousness-igniting a renewed focus on school safety and security. Once-quite communities such as Jonesboro, Ark.; West Paducah, Ky.; Pearl, Miss.; and Edinboro, Pa., suddenly were thrust into the national spotlight because of senseless killings on school property. The shots fired in these small towns are still being felt in educational institutions across the country.

Large or small; urban, suburban or rural; districts are re-evaluating school safety and security procedures. One thing most administrators agree on is that there seems to be an escalation in violence-related activities among our youth-and guns and other weapons often are brought into the picture.

"Schoolyard fights are no longer one student pushing another, a punch is thrown, and that is the end of it," says Martin J. Dunn, chief of campus police, Lower Camden County Regional High School District No. 1, N.J., a suburban district located between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. "Now fights are not over unless someone has an open wound, broken bone, or something more vicious and severe. These behaviors that once were considered unusual are quite common these days, and happening in schools all over the country."

While extreme behavior is becoming more common, as are weapons in schools, last year's shooting tragedies are not the norm. In fact, research by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based group, found that a child's chances of being killed at school were one in a million, and that more than twice as many Americans are killed by lightning than at schools each year.

Predicting risk Even though homicides and shootings in schools do not happen often, ensuring a safe and secure learning environment in the wake of growing youth violence is something all administrators must address.

"Any time you have something that is a big media event, it causes you to focus more on that potential problem," says Larry Farrar, security manager for the 47,000-student Seattle Public School District. "But I don't want to be homicide-driven-if security is doing its job right, [schools] should be looking at threat analysis and addressing a potential problem before it happens."

"It is difficult to try to anticipate what goes on in the creative mind of a student or someone in the community who sees the school district as an attractive target," says William I. Armstrong, business administrator, Central Intermediate Unit (IU) No. 10, West Decatur, Pa., which serves 12 individual districts ranging in size from 1,000 students to more than 8,000 students. "If education is important to us, then a safe learning environment must occur in all of our schools so that children feel safe, comfortable and prepared to learn. And it is our job to deliver that effective student learning in a safe and effective manner."

A strategy many districts are implementing is to predict risk, monitor behavior and intervene early-before a situation erupts. A number of districts within IU No. 10 have taken this approach.

"We are monitoring changes in student behavior, and those changes are being addressed with training of all students in peer mediation. Our professional staff is being trained in passive-restraint techniques," says James Kiscaden, superintendent, Harmony Area School District, Pa.

Lower Camden County has instituted a peer-mediation program where students can resolve some of their issues in more civil ways, and not feel that their only remedy is to assault someone. According to Dunn, who also consults school districts and teaches workshops on school security, the program is one of the more successful and active responses the district has employed.

Mental-health professionals are used by Seattle Public Schools to consult and help students and staff in the district. After meetings with administration, staff and parents, the urban district's Security Department transitioned into a Safety and Security Department to better address concerns.

Focusing on results Pressure is being placed on schools by parents to know what security precautions are in place, forcing districts to explain programs in detail.

"Parents are seeking comfort in knowing that [our] district is making every effort to protect students and staff, and in offering an environment that permits quality education to happen," says Ed Poprik, director of physical plant, State College Area School District, Pa.

With the possibility of violence and crime on school property increasing, many districts are creating specialized departments to focus on the issue.

"Our administration recognized [the increased potential for school violence] a few years ago, which ultimately led to the development of a campus police department," says Lower Camden County's Dunn. "Although [the creation of a campus police department] is not that uncommon in some parts of the country, in New Jersey, it is quite unusual to have a police department overseeing activities on high-school campuses."

As the only fully authorized school-district police department in the state, one full-time officer is assigned to each of the district's five high schools. (Two other New Jersey districts have officers with police powers, but they do not have authority to carry guns.)

"Officers are there not only to respond to incidents, but also to serve as a deterrent and to help educate students in optional ways to respond to violence," says Dunn. "We have been doing this for five years, and have found that our incidents of fighting and disorderly conduct have been greatly reduced."

Training and planning are key Particularly when it comes to security, the importance of training should not be overlooked.

"Training is a key element. We provide a two-week basic training class for all security personnel," says Seattle's Farrar. "We are trying to implement a formal training approach on security for new teachers."

School districts within IU No. 10 also have made a concerted effort to provide security training, conflict resolution and crisis-intervention procedures. At Clearfield Area School District, Pa., a "teen court" has been established. "[It is important to] provide instructional training for students in the area of making [the] right choices and learning the implications of the decisions they make," says Patricia Smith, superintendent.

West Branch Area School District, Pa., created a "community crisis day," where local agencies are invited to present simulations on various security topics, according to superintendent Patricia Lowery.

To successfully implement training and ensure an emergency will be handled promptly and effectively, school districts should consider creating a crisis response plan.

"It is important to have procedures in place to be followed in case of a serious event," says Rita M. Hanna, school business administrator at Lower Camden County.

The district created its Crisis Response Plan in 1997, and all administrators, principals and staff have a copy. The plan includes sections on how to deal with bomb threats, the media, death/suicide, emergency care, hazardous-materials accidents, hostage/terrorist situations, severe weather conditions, and incidents involving school buses, among other things.

Explosive threats While shootings recently have dominated the press, school districts often are targets of other forms of potential violence and crime. One of the most troubling trends is the increasing incidence of bomb threats.

"Bomb threats have been the most critical security challenge for the district," says Lower Camden County's Dunn. "It is one of those behaviors that is difficult to explain how and why people participate in it."

One of the high schools in Lower Camden County received 28 bomb threats last school year. This school year started out with a bomb threat almost every day-until recently. Last school year, 14 people responsible for the 28 calls were arrested. Beginning last September, five people responsible for six calls have been arrested and formally charged. Tracking down the culprits, however, has been difficult.

"There is no common profile for the caller," says Dunn. "They generally are male. Some are troubled; some are academically or athletically superior; most are students within the district.

"Our school administration process is run on a parallel course with the criminal justice system, so we administratively charge them in addition to the criminal charges," continues Dunn. "No matter what the courts choose to do, if we ultimately determine that they are responsible for calling in a bomb threat, we expel them."

"The bomb threats have caused significant disruption to the schools; lots of instructional time is lost," says Hanna. "Initially, the community was up in arms because they thought we were not doing enough. We, on the other hand, were doing everything possible without alerting whoever was making the calls so that we could track them. By offering a reward to students for information on the calls, we were able to catch a number of the offenders."

Schools across the nation have been plagued by bomb threats. Administrators agree that these calls not only immobilize the district and cause significant loss in instructional time, but also raise some highly emotional issues-because the likelihood of a terrorist act on a school is a very real possibility.

"We were pretty comfortable in this country up until a few years ago, when we found out that terrorist acts could happen here," says Dunn. "All that there has to be is a person who wants to do it. And even though the threat is most likely a prank, we must take each instance seriously."

Seattle Public Schools also has been plagued with bomb threats, and has achieved some success in reducing the problem.

Two years ago the district had 32 bomb threats, estimating it lost 50,000 student-learning hours. Last year nine threats were made; this year only one call has been received. Farrar attributes the decline to a number of things, including redoing bomb-threat procedures, a better education process, and a series of meetings with administration and on-site staff. In addition, a concerted effort was made to keep media involvement down.

"The copycat factor exacerbates problems, and incidents seem to increase after media reports. By keeping media involvement down, copycat bomb threats were minimized," says Farrar.

Another security challenge many districts are facing is the growing incidence of arson-related crimes. A number of recent cases are proving that administrators are fighting back-and going beyond just expulsion and criminal charges to hit where it often hurts most: the pocketbook. For example, two teenage boys who admitted setting a fire that destroyed Lee Vining High School in Mono County, Calif., recently were not only sentenced to juvenile facilities, but also ordered to repay the school district and its insurers for losses estimated to be between $4 million and $5 million.

Armed and ready While the human factor is key in creating a safe school environment, technology has proven instrumental and should be included in any complete school-security program. From sophisticated alarm, camera/video and metal-detection systems to call boxes, walkie-talkies and telephones in the classroom, administrators are arming themselves with the tools needed to get the job done.

One area that has grown in usage, and that has benefits in numerous other school applications, is the picture identification (ID) card. While not always used solely for security applications, administrators find it is an important part of a security program.

Seattle Public Schools' high-school students all have picture ID cards, and while the cards can be used for other things, the security aspect provided by the cards was a determining factor in their purchase.

"The cards provide us with a quick ID of the student, and afford us a number of security benefits," says Farrar.

Lower Camden County also makes use of a picture ID system which, besides assistingin security measures, can be used in the lunchroom, library and for school events.

"Picture ID cards certainly are something they [students] have on them that will assist us in security measures, but they are not used primarily as a security function, since we have not built in any punishment if students do not carry it [ID card] on them," says Dunn.

Another type of technology that is growing in school security applications is bus cameras.

"We have live cameras on all of our school buses, primarily because that is an area where students are relatively unsupervised," says Dunn.

Depending on budgets, some districts have both live and dummy cameras on buses. Those with dummy cameras typically rotate them with the live camera boxes so that students never know which are live and which are not.

A mounting concern In today's environment, security challenges can arise anywhere. One area often not considered as posing a security threat is overcrowded buildings. With the explosion in school population and difficulty many school districts have in raising funds for construction, overcrowded schools are a problem faced across the nation.

"Once you put too many children in a building, there is a potential for real security issues to occur," says Lower Camden County's Hanna. "Overcrowding endangers students and teachers."

The district has attempted to pass bond issues for school construction for the past 20 years, but has not had any success, according to Hanna. While in good condition, the older buildings comprising the district are extremely overcrowded, at about 22 percent over capacity.

Older buildings often have antiquated systems, which can cause difficulty in providing a safe and secure environment. Such is the case with a number of school facilities in Charles County Public Schools, Md.

"We are pulling ourselves out of the dark ages. Many of our schools had old, primitive systems and hardware that were simply toggle switches to activate an alarm system," says Brian D. Law, coordinating supervisor of maintenance and operations. "We are essentially rebuilding our security system from the bottom up."

The district is using in-house staff to design, lay out and execute work to update and upgrade all of its schools' security systems. According to Law, work is expected to be completed over the next two years.

The University of California, Berkeley (UCB), takes a proactive approach to security. With more than 47,000 students and staff, 118 buildings on its main campus, and additional housing and research facilities off-campus, UCB has a number of programs and systems in place to combat the threat of violence and crime.

Because of its urban environment and the fact that a number of its facilities are off-campus on city streets, university police must cover a lot of ground.

"The casual visitor [to the campus] may not be aware when they are on university property and when they are not," says Adan Tejada, lieutenant, UCB Police Department. "We not only need to address crime concerns for the campus, we also need to keep a close watch on what the trends are in the city."

The university police department works in close partnership with the city police department. It also is one of the few police agencies in the area, as well as one of the few universities in the nation, that has a fully equipped explosives disposal unit.

One area the university-and the state of California-is embracing in the quest to provide a safe and secure environment is "crime prevention through environmental design" (CPTED). The basic notion behind CPTED is to address security and safety issues early in the design phase of a new construction or retrofit project. The state already has built CPTED into law (Penal Code Section 14051). The code spells out that city and county officials must consult with law-enforcement and fire officials to create ordinances that address issues of building security, and then incorporate them into code.

Although the state code currently does not officially translate into academia, at UCB the campuspolice department is part of a technical review committee that reviews all proposed capital projects for the campus.

"It allows us to get in on the ground floor during the initial drawings," says Tejada. "For example, we can see if the building infrastructure will allow card access; or if lighting placement is sufficient. Being able to pick up on those types of things at the initial stages of design allows the university to be more cost effective with its construction. If this process does not take place and the building goes up, you have to retrofit something after the fact or take care of the crime problem that might result."

Tejada references examples of CPTED such as setting up office space so that there is informal surveillance of a common area that would reduce the ability of someone to commit an undetected crime; or setting up office spaces around a courtyard so that if someone is sitting at their computer terminal they still have a view of the courtyard in the event someone were to come in and, for instance, try to steal a bike from the bike rack.

"Small things like these, if they are not thought about during design, they probably are not going to be there," says Tejada. "The more we can reduce the opportunity, the more we can reduce the crime upfront. And this can be done simply by the way a building is constructed."

Although it is not always possible to predict behavior that will lead to violence, certain early warning signs can be recognized, such as:

-Social withdrawal.

-Excessive feelings of isolation and being alone.

-Excessive feelings of rejection.

-Being a victim of violence.

-Feelings of being picked on and persecuted.

-Low school interest and poor academic performance.

-Expression of violence in writings and drawings.

-Uncontrolled anger.

-Patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating and bullying behaviors.

-History of discipline problems or violent and aggressive behavior.

-Drug use and alcohol use.

-Affiliation with gangs.

-Inappropriate access to, possession of, and use of firearms.

-Serious threats of violence.

Effective prevention, intervention and crisis response strategies operate best in school communities that:

-Focus on academic achievement.

-Involve families in meaningful ways.

-Develop links to the community.

-Emphasize positive relationships among students and staff.

-Discuss safety issues openly.

-Treat students with equal respect.

-Create ways for students to share their concerns.

-Help children feel safe expressing their feelings.

-Have in place a system for referring children who are suspected of being abused or neglected.

-Offer extended day programs for children.

-Identify problems and assess progress toward solutions.

-Support students in making the transition to adult life and the workplace.

Effective and safe schools communicate a strong sense of security. Schools can enhance physical safety by:

-Supervising access to buildings and grounds.

-Reducing class size and school size.

-Adjusting scheduling to minimize time in hallways or in potentially dangerous locations.

-Conducting a building safety audit.

-Arranging supervision at critical times.

-Having adults visibly present throughout the school building.

-Staggering dismissal times and lunch periods.

-Monitoring the surrounding school grounds.

-Coordinating with local police to ensure there are safe routes to and from school.

The physical condition of the school building also has an impact on student attitude, behavior and motivation to achieve. Typically, there tend to be more incidents of fighting and violence in school buildings that are dirty, too cold or too hot, filled with graffiti, in need of repair or unsanitary.

Hide comments

Comments

  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Publish