Conflict is inevitable. So, when you think about keeping your schools safe, consider communication.
Images of students fleeing deadly shooting sprees in 1998-99 in Colorado and Arkansas set a new tone in classrooms nationwide.
Then there was the plot in 1999, to kill six faculty members in a small Kansas City school. It was foiled by police. And in a small Michigan community, more than 150 parents volunteered to monitor a school after a racially motivated bomb threat.
Author, educator and developmental psychologist Elizabeth A. Barton points out these examples in her new book Leadership Strategies for Safe Schools.
As more violent incidents occur in schools, the fear that schools are not the safe havens they once were rises. To counteract such fear and real threats, Barton says, school administrators face a growing need to develop comprehensive school safety plans.
"Conflict is inevitable," says Barton, who is also associate director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University in Michigan and teaches psychology and education courses at Wayne State and University of Michigan. "I think that school violence will always be a part of the school community, but I think the means by which school violence plays out will change. There will be fewer massive tragedies and gun violence.
"The deadly means to resolve the conflicts can be diminished. I truly believe prevention efforts and social training are really critical."
Barton proposes a proactive, student-centered program to deflate violent tendencies, including improving student attitudes toward conflict resolution, using peer mediation and creating school safety teams. But a new first-of-its-kind national report card will reveal what one million Americans know and don't know about their school district's safety program.
The results of the "School Safety Report Card," which has been organized by International Horizons Unlimited, an educational resources and consulting firm, will be released this spring and sent to individual districts with facts of what local residents think of their districts' safety programs. Such awakening to the problem is the first step in fighting it, experts say.
"The results will vary," says Saul B. Wilen, known as the "father" of the report card and CEO of International Horizons Unlimited. "If everyone in a district says everything is hunky dory, then they're doing real well. If administrators in another district say everything is fine, but everyone else in that district says it's not, then they should take another look" at the program and make changes, he says.
The report card, which is accessible to anyone online at www.schoolsafetyreportcard.com, is important for all members of the community, Wilen says. The company pinpointed 22 stakeholder groups, including parents, law enforcement officers, business people and senior citizens whose property values are affected by school violence. The questions cover such issues as guards, metal detectors, crisis management teams and accountability. And the questions will force stakeholders to start questioning administrators and board members about safety at local schools, Wilen says.
"If only 10 percent of the stakeholders seriously become aware and understand how important this is ... more than 50 percent of the schools and districts will show change," Wilen says about the results. "And I think we'll see progressive changes occurring in a year and then more ... over the next 10 years."
Wilen says the idea for a report card came about two years ago after his company finished a presentation to Texas educators and learned many school administrators "did not have a handle on school safety and school violence."
"I sit on all sorts of task-force committees. Prevention is not in the vocabulary," Wilen says. "Education is not in the vocabulary. If you don't prevent, and you have to deal with a crisis, it will cost you many more dollars than if you had prevented it."
Since 1990, Barton notes in her book that school leaders have taken more of a "reactive approach" to school safety rather than "proactive" by installing metal detectors and surveillance equipment
For example, some schools on Long Island, N.Y., are looking into cutting-edge technology from A+ Technology Solutions. New digital surveillance systems allow school principals to view school buildings or classrooms from their homes via the Internet, according to Ed Milliken, a former schools superintendent and now owner of a consulting business. And StudentTrac is a new student information system available on handheld PCs that can keep track of where students should be at a particular time during school. It also includes pupil photos, home phone numbers, and parental data with work contacts, Milliken says.
"As more schools become aware of it, with security and protection being such a high priority now, it will become more prevalent," Milliken says.
But Barton stresses more education. The Conflict Resolution Education Network of the National Institute for Dispute Resolution estimated in 1996 that 10 percent of public schools had implemented conflict resolution programs.
Under such programs, students learn violence prevention techniques and general safety procedures through curriculum integration and peer mediation training. Specifically, students will learn such life skills as communication, cooperation and anger management.
Two such programs with encouraging results are Second Step and Steps to Respect by not-for-profit Committee for Children, according to Karin Frey, director of research and education at Committee for Children. The committee, which researches and develops internationally acclaimed research-based curricula to prevent bullying, child abuse and youth violence, says the programs are used in roughly 15,000 schools in North America and help reduce physical aggression and verbal abuse among children and increase positive social behavior.
For example, a middle school in Springfield, Ore., the same town where a school shooting occurred in 1999, implemented Second Step after the incident and saw a decrease over two years from 15 weapon offenses on school grounds to just one, Frey says. Second Step teaches empathy, impulse control and anger management, and it provides discussions, videos, modeling new skills and role-playing.
"We also have data showing that kids are less likely to behave aggressively in the context of a conflict and less likely to require adult intervention in conflicts," Frey says.
Frey notes that along with violence prevention, the programs help to create socially open-minded people. "We live in a society that is increasingly diverse, and people in the workplace are increasingly working with people from other countries," Frey says. Possessing "typical" social skills that do not account for different beliefs or thoughts "just doesn't cut it anymore," she says. And she adds that children undergoing such programs feel more connected to the school and do better academically, Frey says.
"If kids are operating in classrooms where there's a lot of aggressive behavior, they are not learning," she says. "Every child is affected ... because even if they are not targeted for bullying, there becomes a climate of fear and they start to think, 'Who's next? Maybe it's me?' "
Barton also points out the importance of developing school safety teams, which are groups of people empowered by the state or city government or school leaders to guide and respond to safety issues and develop a school safety plan. The plan should cover environment issues, such as access control and surveillance; student education; school policies and procedures; as well as school-community partnerships.
Barton recommends a district-wide program but individualized for each school because one school might use peer mediation and another may not. "The district needs to have supportive policies and procedures so it can provide infrastructure and a continuity of policies," she says.
One of the great challenges of such safety programs is to fit them into busy school schedules, Barton admits. But she says teachers can infuse violence prevention sessions in regular classroom work. For example, language arts students can read newspapers and find destructive methods of conflict resolution in the stories and then have them think of alternate solutions and how that would impact future stories. History students can discuss how different presidents dealt with conflict.
Or schools can hire outside consultants to spend up to two hours a day during or afterschool for roughly 15 weeks conducting programs, Barton says. Outside programs can cost up to $10,000, but schools can find grants, get business support or volunteers to help alleviate expenses, she says.
On top of scarce time, teachers haven't been educated themselves on the topic, Barton notes. "The problem is that there's an expectation for teachers to teach social skills ... but they really haven't been provided with enough education," Barton says.
Barton says if standardized tests included questions on social skills, it would force teachers to teach more about such skills. "I have thought of pushing that idea," Barton says. "You can infuse these type of questions on reading tests and social studies questions."
Angela Pascopella, email@example.com, is associate features editor.