This September in San Diego, a 14-year-old boy jogging with his high school cross-country team was shot and killed by his father, who then killed himself. Eleven days later, a 16-year-old girl in Kentucky fatally shot a teen and herself as the two sat in a car near their school. In October, a middle school teacher in Roanoke, Va., accused of assaulting a student, jumped off a bridge a day after being exonerated. He was never informed he was exonerated.
Twenty-eight deaths happened on school property in the first three months of this school year. That's more than occurred in each of the last two full school years. (Sixteen deaths were reported last year and 17 in the 2001-02 school year.)
The big question is why? Experts can't explain this year's spike, saying most outbursts in violence occur in the spring--with warmer weather, test frustration, and interpersonal relationships that turn sour during the year.
But one person blames school district leaders. Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, says schools are ripe for increased violence. The weakened budgets haunt districts, squeezing prevention programs out; increased focus on test scores overshadows everything else; and human complacency dominates, with a "been-there, done-that" attitude about crisis plans and violence prevention, he says.
Having programs to deter these problems help, but vigilance, persistence and time spent on these programs are the keys to keeping crime at schools low, experts say.
"You have to balance the school climate, school discipline and mental health programs with crisis preparedness measures. Every school needs that. You can't limit it to one program or strategy," Trump says. Every school should train teachers and support staff on security, crisis planning, early warning signs of violence, and other violence prevention and intervention strategies, he adds.
Most districts do employ some sort of violence prevention program. But 10 basic areas should always be covered, Trump says. These range from complex, allowing former troublemakers to be mediators for their peers, to simple, such as making sure the district's rules are clearly explained and posted.
1. Get Involved
"We've got to a do a better job of paying attention," says Scott Poland, director of psychological services for Cypress-Fairbanks (Texas) Independent School District in Houston and author of four books on school crises.
Teachers must stop troublemakers, not ignore them. They can't cluster with other teachers on playgrounds when children are playing far away, Poland says.
Incidents of hazing among Long Island, N.Y., school football players and females at a powder puff high school football game in Chicago this past year were examples of how adults aren't involved. "In my mind, a number of parents are looking the other way," Poland says. " 'If I don't look, I can be oblivious.' "
But children want parents and teachers more involved in their lives, according to one school survey, Poland says. After a 2001 school shooting in Santee, Calif., Poland, who led a national crisis team at the time, asked the principal to have students write what they needed to heal. "Most teens want [parents/adults] to ask questions, to know the names of their friends," and to set limits, Poland says. "Another piece of advice for adults is to reach out, don't preach. Listen."
Davis High School Principal Chuck Edmonds in Modesto, Calif., strives for a proactive approach that involves all school personnel. The biggest first step is buy-in from teachers and faculty. Teachers must intervene or call for help when students are fighting or roaming hallways. Janitors and lunch personnel also must report conflicts or threats. And administrators must support teachers and principals when they have problems in their particular school. Administrators must inform parents who complain to them that the school principal will handle the problem.
Parents at Davis High are also informed, via newsletters, workshops and informal parent meetings, of what's going on. "We want the parents better informed of what we're doing," Edmonds says.
2. Ask for Outside Help
In responding to schools nationwide where students and teachers were killed, Poland says he looked into the eyes of surviving students. "Research is telling us that when adolescents are traumatized they are more at risk for substance abuse, depression, suicide and reckless behavior," he says.
Administrators are smart to ask for help following a tragedy, Poland adds. An outside professional is more objective and less threatening to students who might fear opening up to a guidance counselor they know. On the year anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting spree, a school basketball player hung himself.
"He was a popular and smart kid," Poland says. "He was traumatized. I'm not trying to criticize anyone, but there are lessons learned. We need to recognize as a society that schools, communities and parents all need to provide more extensive follow-up. When your teacher dies and your best friend is shot and killed, not everyone just bounces back."
3. Meet and Greet
School secretaries should be at or near the front door to greet every person walking in, to gauge visitors' moods, and to ask whom they are visiting, Poland says.
When Anchorage schools started a safety program seven years ago, a major component was the school environment and how families and students felt in a school, says Wendy Constantine, Anchorage (Alas.) Public Schools peaceable coordinator.
4. Promote Classroom Resolution
Classroom environments are important, too. Anchorage public school children are trained in conflict resolution skills and taught how to explain their feelings to others, Constantine says. For example, students are told that they can tell someone that when he or she talks in a loud voice, it scares them, she says. Peer mediation is done in grades 3-6, where younger students can even mediate between older children, Constantine says. The ground rules include: no putdowns, listening to other sides of the story, and discussing how each student could have acted differently.
Since the program started in Anchorage, there are fewer referrals to the main office for misbehavior and conflicts. And teachers have more time to teach, Constantine says.
5. Create Signs and Safety Pledges
Signs should be posted in schools stating there will be zero tolerance for drugs, weapons and bullying and students should pledge allegiance to safety. In Cypress-Fairbanks school district, every one of the 75,000 students sign a safety pledge. The pledge explains that students: will report weapons on campus; will allow adults to determine the seriousness of a threat; will promise to control anger; and will promise to try to get along with others regardless of race and religion.
6. Study School Floor Plans
Students should be asked what areas in the school make them feel unsafe during the day or before and after school. Then, teachers could supervise questionable hallways. Coaches could check the goings-on in locker rooms. And if stairwells are dangerous, hang big mirrors that show images around corners.
7. Have a Heart
Every program should also infuse a heart and soul in lessons, according to Richard Nicklos, principal of East Hills Elementary School in Pittsburgh. Using the Heartwood Institute's Ethics Program for the past eight years, children learn about honesty, loyalty and mediation in class. On the school bus, storytellers read stories of honesty and loyalty. "I wouldn't say we've made quantum leaps [in terms of improving student behavior] but it helped us put a soul where it needs to be--that is in the heart, minds and thinking patterns of youngsters," Nicklos says. Because many elementary school children are self-consumed and immature at this time, Nicklos hopes the children will use the skills learned in elementary school by middle and/or high school.
8. Encourage Diversity
On a Web site, www.siubhan.com, an anonymous person posted an essay explaining that when he was in school he was one of the "oddballs" and pushed down the stairs at school. He admits he fantasized about "going on a shooting rampage" in school, but he knew it wasn't the right thing to do. Now, he writes, schools are trying to make kids "conform, or else." Violent video games and certain T-shirts are banned. And students who speak out against the school "caste system for the violence" are suspended. "Diversity in our youth should be encouraged and nourished and those who try to stamp it out should be the ones facing suspension from school," he writes.
Trump, who was unfamiliar with the essay, agrees, saying he knows many students don't "fit in" and are often teased and bullied for it. "Understanding, accepting, respecting and valuing diversity should be encouraged in schools as we have such a diverse broader society," Trump says.
9. Put Former Troublemakers in Charge
A few students at West Orange (N.J.) School District who were suspended for fights or bad behavior last year are now mediators in their schools. They weren't forgotten or labeled hopeless; they were given a chance. "If they're not going to be positive leaders, they'll be negative leaders," says Terry Granato, coordinator of basic skills and federal programs for the district. Fellow students nominate peer mediators. Using the Resolving Conflicts Creatively Program in elementary and middle schools, teachers are trained to be coaches, staff are trained to mediate between students outside of class, and students learn that conflict is part of life and doesn't have to be negative. Playground fights and after-school brawls have decreased in past years, Granato says.
10. But When Bullies Rule, Diffuse Situations
Bully-proofing schools has to be more creative. When two people are fighting, or what is termed "normal conflict," then conflict resolution works, according to Amy Plog, program evaluation advisor for Cherry Creek Schools in Denver. But bullying is about power, and if one student feels powerless, mediation can't even start. The bullied students will avoid school and their test scores will drop. In the long run, they might become depressed and show violent tendencies, Plog says.
When William Porter, now president of Creating Caring Communities, a non-profit organization to promote safety in schools, was an administrator at Cherry Creek Schools in 1994, he and other administrators created a program to combat bullying. Now, Bully-Proofing Your School is used nationwide in elementary and middle schools.
It requires a school-wide commitment from principals, teachers, staff, parents and students with clear rules. Students are coached to not just watch bullying occur or instigate more bullying, Plog says. "It's creating an environment where bullying is just not tolerated."
Students learn to remember HA HA SO--seeking help from an adult; asserting oneself; using humor to diffuse situations; avoiding a tense situation; positive self-talk; and owning criticism from a bully, agreeing that maybe the sweater the victim is wearing is ugly after all.
After a year's worth of training, students reported a decrease in verbal and social alienation and physical harassment while teachers reported seeing more of it--meaning teachers are more aware of bullying, but students feel more empowered to handle bullying, Porter says. And in at least one Colorado school using it, fights decreased from 74 to one in just one year. "So kids and staff are focusing more on learning," Porter says, "and less time on behavioral problems."
Angela Pascopella is features editor.