School Safety Continues to Raise Concerns
By Meghan Fay, Assistant Editor

A new year has just begun, but concerns about school safety among parents and communities nationwide have carried over from the violence of years past. Studies show, however, that school violence is actually on the decline and that children are at greater risk of being hit while riding their bicycle than being shot in school. Media attention focused on isolated tragic incidents, however, has led the public to believe otherwise.

“Despite the tragic shootings, schools are still the safest place for our kids to be. Parents who are concerned about the safety of their kids would be better advised to worry about seat belts instead of bullet proof uniforms,” said James Alan Fox, V. Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. 

Security measures, such as adding surveillance cameras, school resource officers and clear backpacks, are considered by some to be quick fixes that will do more harm than good. “We have invested resources in a lot of silly ideas. I think we need to calm down a bit,” said Fox. Others, however, defend the measures stating that concern for students’ safety in schools is not an over-reaction. “It’s real easy to portray us as becoming a police state, but we are the protectors and the educators,” said Alan Wood, Principal, Newnan High School, Newnan, Georgia.

As the second semester resumes for students across the country, many of the new safety measures are completing their trial run. Are the new safety measures constant reminders of how vulnerable students are or do the measures themselves make the students feel safe?

New Safety Measures

Mason High School in Mason City, Ohio added twenty-five surveillance cameras to monitor the activities of its 1,500 students and numerous visitors in and around the one-story building. In addition to the cameras, two staff members walk the halls to check student passes, there is a school resource officer, staff wear ID badges, visitors must sign in, all doors except for the front door lock from the outside and the school has a safe school help line.

According to Shelly Benesh, public information officer for Mason City Schools, the cameras allow for better monitoring of a building that is used by the outside community as well as the students and the cameras give the students a better sense of security.

School safety experts say otherwise. The presence of surveillance cameras, “makes you feel less safe. It’s a constant reminder of how vulnerable you are,” said Fox.

There is only one camera in each of the other five buildings in the district. This measure was chosen because of the high school age group and the fact that this building gets the most use out of any other in the district.

Many inner city schools feel that suburbia is catching up to them by looking at security measures whereas in the past, suburban school districts felt untouched by violence. In light of the Columbine incident, “I think that many are looking at total security. We’ve had it for years. I think the over-reaction is that they have to catch up to what we’re already doing,” said Dr. Henry Fraind, Deputy Superintendent of Schools and Districts Spokesperson, Miami/Dade County, Florida Public Schools.  The only security increase in this school system is in the number of metal detectors, which is a tool already used throughout the system as a supplement to hand held metal detectors. 

Effective January 5, 2000, all Robeson County, North Carolina Schools were scheduled to require the student population, which is over 23,000, to either bring clear book/gym bags or a nylon mesh book/gym bags to school. This measure was implemented, “because of all the situations that have taken place throughout the country,” said Henry Byrd, Executive Director of Administration, Robeson County School District.

Jim Murphy of Murphy Group, Inc., usually sells promotional bags for cosmetic companies, but after Columbine he received numerous calls from concerned parents asking if his clear cosmetic bags could be transformed into clear backpacks. Robeson County was one of them.

“We err on the side of safety and I know some people may say we over-react, but I think the life of a child is a good reason to react,” said Byrd. In addition to the new backpack policy, the school district has added a school resource officer, a safe school hotline and metal detectors over the last five years. “Basically we’re really aware of some situations. We’re still looking to improve daily. We think it (the backpack policy) will have an impact,” said Byrd.

According to Murphy, the majority of students won’t want to carry a clear backpack because they think that it’s ‘not cool’. “The clear backpack is a way for school administrators to get a quick look. This is just one tool of many. The first tool is the parents. Parents are the first line of defense. Clear backpacks and a backpack policy are just a tool,” said Murphy. 

“Many of the strategies we are seeing are focusing on controls, constraints and restrictions. Creating safe schools involves much more than metal scanners and closed circuit television surveillance,” said Dr. Ronald Stephens, Executive Director of the National School Safety Center. “We need to make certain that for every controlling strategy there are three or four educational and support strategies that focus on mentoring, role modeling and changing the attitudes of young people. As school administrators and parents we must ask the question: How would we want to be treated if we were the students? When we can answer that question to our satisfaction, then we will have some reasonable alternatives for student behavior guidelines.”

Mental Health Perspective

Child psychologists and psychiatrists who deal with youth after they have become violent say that the solution may not lie with increased sanctions. According to Martin Schotz, Ph.D., a consulting Psychiatrist for the South End Community Mental Health Center in Boston and the Medical Director for a Boston-area school for children with behavioral and educational problems, societal abuse has as much to do with violence as anything. “We have a structurally violent society and we tend to define it narrowly. Actual physical violence is the end point of what begins with people being mistreated,” said Schotz.

Poverty, lack of health care, and the lack of educational resources all play a factor, he said, in youth violence. “People are living in conditions of disadvantage and society wants to blame them for it, which is another form of abuse,” he said.

As school administrators and teachers begin to create strategies for quelling violence among their students, Schotz suggests they look at their own behavior first. “The teachers and administrators have to ask themselves, Are they non-violent? And, What is their concept of non-violence? And, How do they set an example for students in approaching problems in a spirit of non-violence? We (as a society) don’t want the person at the bottom to react (violently), but we’re not so concerned about how the person at the top reacts,” he said. 

”There has to be a tolerance for differences,” said Clare O’Callaghan, RN, C.S., Ed.D, a neuro-psychologist, psychiatric nurse and Clinical Director of Children Services at the South End Community Mental Health Center in Boston.

According to O’Callaghan, there needs to be an emphasis on communication and encouraging youth to discuss what they are feeling. The message of, “we care about what your thinking and feeling,” has to be sent to youth starting from the time that they are young, said O’Callaghan. She believes that a part of violence prevention has to do with helping kids recognize their strengths and allowing them to have some self-esteem. That includes, “understanding that there are differences among people and that all differences are not bad,” said O’Callaghan.

“Teaching kids ways to negotiate is important,” said O’Callaghan. Unfortunately, kids don’t always witness the best models of communication at home. Youth are a captive audience while they are in school. It is impossible to transform the family overnight, but O’Callaghan believes that if you teach kids negotiating and communication skills, encourage role-playing activities and student panels to help resolve problems, then some of what they learn may touch the family. 

“We’re way too late if we’re looking at Columbine type bombers. It’s not about screening everyone and giving them a type and number. I think what needs to happen is an awareness at an earlier level of what kids are saying. Those things have to start at grade one,” said O’Callaghan. “You really need to sit down with kids in small groups.”

After School Programs

According to the study “Youth Violence and the Urban Public School Response” by Jack Levin, Ph.D., Professor and Director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University and Heather Beth Johnson of Northeastern University, teenage crime peaks during the afternoon period between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Levin also believes that after school programs are a positive investment of resources in the fight against juvenile crime. Fox, his colleague, agrees.

According to Fox if schools invested time and energy into lowering class size, increasing the number of teachers and guidance counselors, reducing overall school size, increasing after school programs and keeping schools open longer they would be moving in the right direction.

National School Safety Center
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339