New Initiative Urges Schools to "Be Safe and Sound"
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor
For the last few years, incidents of school violence have produced a great deal of concern about how safe our learning institutions are for students and teachers. While more serious, sometimes deadly, events have drawn interest and introspection, it is not always these incidents that are a definitive indicator of a school's safety.
"An event occurs and receives heavy media attention [and as a result], the nation shifts [its attention] to that," says Dr. Steven Edwards, Vice President of the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC). "We haven't had a school shooting where a kid has gone into a school and shot a teacher or student in two years, so [people] believe that schools are safer. Shootings are the tip of the iceberg. Other events happen on a daily basis that may lead to that and can cause distress [among] students like bullying and intimidation."
Unlike incidents of school shootings, it is harder, adds Edwards, to gather data on less serious incidents in schools. One fact that is clear, however, is that the levels of these behaviors vary between schools and also depending on who is giving you the information - students vs. parents, for example.
Due in part to this lack of evidence, it then becomes harder to identify when an incident of bullying will go too far to where retaliation from one or both parties can lead to a more serious event.
"This is something we need to deal with as schools, as communities and as citizens," says Edwards, a former high school principal in Pennsylvania. "It's like the president's initiative of "leave no child behind," but [we should] go beyond testing and academic standards. We also need to concern ourselves with the social and emotional standards and treat the whole child."
In order to aid schools across the nation in gauging what is going on in their hallways and classrooms, the NCPC's National Safety and Security Council (NSSC) has launched its "Be Safe and Sound" campaign. The main goal of this initiative is to educate and call more attention to both safety and security issues that arise in various environments, including schools.
Along with NSSC's partners including The Allstate Foundation, the ASSA ABLOY Group and Safe School Solutions, attention will be given to both physical security needs as well as prevention strategies for schools.
Time2act.org recently spoke with Edwards to learn more about the campaign and how it hopes to make our nations' schools safer environments for students and faculty.
What was the motivation for the creation of the NSSC and for this new initiative?
Edwards: The concept for the NSSC was developed about two years ago when the NCPC and a number of private corporations came together with the concern of safety and security in terms of the whole spectrum - homes, businesses, industry, schools, etc. It was based on an idea the NCPC had for a place that people could go or an agency to turn to [for safety and security needs] and would not push into one direction or towards a [certain] brand name.
For example, after Columbine, as a principal I was bombarded with companies trying to sell me [security] products. To weed through [all of them] was difficult and people were often swayed by the best salesman or a flashy brochure. We wanted a way to help people through this process.
Schools were our [initial] focus. School safety has fallen off the radar screen after September 11th. Terrorism and even the latest sniper shootings in the Washington D.C. area have drawn significant national attention. So we want to find a way to mobilize parents and policy makers to keep school safety at the forefront of our national agenda.
Through [this campaign], we want to look at the hard side - like locks and alarms - and soft side - in terms of attitudes and behaviors - of [school safety] and foster dialogue between school administrators, parents, children and policy makers.
Why does the "Be Safe and Sound" campaign put focus on both physical security and prevention measures?
Edwards: It's important to be holistic in our approach with this topic. To be holistic, you need to look at both sides. You can't say 'we've put in metal detectors, cameras and police in schools and we are all set.' You have to be conscious of not creating a prison-like environment for kids.
On the other side, you have to look at policy and procedures and the relationship you develop with kids. The climate of the school and how you treat the kids will be the real predictor. [There's] got to be a balance.
It also depends on each school and/or community. This isn't something where we can say 'this is the model for every school' - it depends on the needs and size of the school and community, which will vary.
What will schools and active participants be doing as part of the initiative?
Edwards: We are currently running pilot programs in two schools - one in Kentucky and one in Pennsylvania. There, they will work at having to do their own safety audit of the school. They will go in, with our assistance, and [look] at what the physical aspects are for a safe or unsafe environment, such as a door propped open, a broken lock, or insufficient lighting in the parking lot. Every school or organization will find something.
They will also look at a climate survey that [examines] what kids say about safety in their school, bullying, the way they are treated by teachers [and other aspects]. We will also look at what parents, teachers, school administrators [and others] think. Most likely, the kids will have one perception, the parents another, the community another and the teachers, their own [thoughts].
This survey will help them answer the question 'Where are we at [in terms of school safety]?' and bring [the individual responses] together to create a safer learning environment.
The NSSC has put together a panel of experts to conduct third person review and [the organization] will be available to provide resources and other information to these schools.
I hope someday, we will see schools being certified by the NSSC as making significant strides to keep their schools safer. This doesn't [guarantee] something won't happen at the school, but it will say that they have taken a serious look at their school with a critical eye, identified needs and continue to monitor.
Without safe schools, how can kids learn? As a principal for 16 years, I've always asked this. How can kids sit and learn math, English, social studies and other subjects if they are looking over their shoulder?
This campaign puts a lot of focus on parents as key players. Why is this so?
Edwards: Parents pay taxes, send their kids to school and have certain assumptions of what that school does. No one sends their kids to school and says 'let's see what happens and [hope nothing happens to them],' so parents are a key group to help us mobilize this.
They have a tremendous influence in the community and the schools, especially if they attract the ears of school administrators and policy makers. No politician or school board member, for example, will say that school safety is not important.
Once things are identified, [decision makers will hopefully say] 'let's look at funding to create a safer environment' and 'we need [a physical product]' or 'our climate survey said 80 percent of kids are being bullied, so we need training on [dealing with this issue].'
Parents can be very powerful in making changes. As a former principal, I know how influential they can be.
For more information on the National Safety and Security Council (NSSC) and its "Be Safe and Sound" campaign, go to: http://www.ncpc.org/nssc/index.html.
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