Most schools are safe places. But pockets of violence continue to cast a dark shadow over some buildings. So far this school year, as of mid-March, 40 people died in school-associated deaths, exceeding the number of school deaths for the past two years combined.
Cuts in funds for the federal Safe and Drug Free Schools program, pressure on educators to meet test standards, and a belief that educators have already done enough to address violence are all pushing school safety to the back burner, according to Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, a private consulting firm.
The following trends point to more subtle but potentially damaging problems. Bullying in the form of gay bashing not only hurts feelings but can actually damage a student's academic life. Victims might even end up dead.
Then there is the high-tech solution to crime. A new 3-D facial recognition camera installed in an Arizona school could nail potential sexual predators or abductors but it raises questions of privacy and could potentially cause more security problems.
Finally, a two decades-long reaction to juvenile misconduct is sending kids to court instead of detention. Some children end up thinking they are a criminal when they are only being kids, according to Judith Browne, Advancement Project senior attorney.
When Being Gay Is a Target
Experts on bullying say gay bashing is dangerous and can affect gay kids as much as straight kids. A fourth 'R' is an answer
In high school, Matthew Shepard was spared taunting. It wasn't until he was at the University of Wyoming that he was handed the ultimate punishment for being gay.
In 1998, two men posed as homosexuals and lured the 21-year-old from
a Laramie, Wyo. bar, drove him away, tied him to a fence and pistol-whipped him, fracturing his skull. He was left for dead, found, and died four days later at a hospital.
Matthew Shepard died because he was gay.
With a gentle voice, Judy Shepard, his mother and executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, says she is helping gay youths live a better life. Through her national speaking program, The Legacy of Matthew Shepard, Shepard shares with colleges, communities and corporations nationwide her son's story and his values of dignity for others. "We were sort of yanked out into the national platform," says Shepard, who suspected her son was gay when he was a teenager and never rejected him. "And we went willingly because we didn't want this to happen anymore."
Shepard says school administrators can make a difference by helping gay students feel safer in school and/or protect them from harm. But many public K-12 schools don't want Shepard to spread her story. Administrators fear parents' reactions to the speech, she says. "And some administrators and/or staff can be as homophobic as some of the kids," says Shepard. "I'm outraged while feeling a little helpless. It's a huge undertaking to change people's attitudes."
A big problem for gay students is that they often don't have anyone from whom to seek help. Even straight kids are targeted--three out of four kids targeted by anti-gay bullies are heterosexual, according to a 1996 study by the Safe Schools Coalition.
"What exacerbates bullying of gays is that so many of them still don't feel supported," says Candace Gingrich, manager of the national Coming Out Project for the Human Rights Campaign. If kids throw around the "n" word or other foul word, they will be punished in school, says Gingrich, who is gay and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's half-sister. But if they use "faggot" or "dyke," "no one does a thing about it," she says.
The silence of administrators and teachers only encourages students to continue teasing, says Gingrich, also author of The Accidental Activist. Many teachers are reluctant to take action against anti-gay behavior because there may be no policy or law, adds Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network.
"We have found that teachers who do intervene get targeted because people" wonder about their motivation, he says.
Not only are feelings hurt when kids taunt other children, but experts say victims lose out on a good education and social life. Harassed gay students often have grade point averages that are more than 10 percent lower than those who are not harassed, according to GLSEN's 2003 National School Climate Survey.
"I know that youths who are harassed are more likely to have sick days, more likely to drop out and run away from home," Gingrich says. "And the incidents of suicide attempts are known to be higher among gay youth."
Jennings knows. He was targeted in junior high school in Winston-Salem, N.C. Jennings, who came out at age 17, raised his hand often in class and was named the school "faggot." He stopped going to the lunch room out of fear of taunts and he attempted suicide at age 16. His supportive family helped him through as did college. Jennings vowed he would become a teacher. "I would do whatever I could so that the kids I taught had it better."
Jennings became a history teacher and was the faculty advisor of the first Gay Straight Alliance in the U.S.--in Concord, Mass., in 1988-89 school year. Now, there are about 2,000 GSAs in high schools nationwide.
Experts agree that if administrators and teachers don't agree with the gay lifestyle, they can still teach young minds that discrimination is wrong. "We teach the three 'R's' but we don't teach relationship. And relationship entails another 'R'- respect," says Gilda Carle, author and professor of psychology and communications at Mercy College in New York. "How we relate to other people is just as important as knowing how to read. I think every single school system misses out on this. Some schools are running classes on anti-bullying, but I'm afraid that's not what this is all about. It shouldn't come from a place of negativity, but a place of positivity. I think it should be part of the curriculum."
Jennings suggests adding two words to student handbooks that mention harassment: "Sexual orientation."
"We're not going to get grade point averages up if we don't first create a climate where students want to come to learn," Jennings says.
And getting them when they're young is the best hope for changing attitudes. "We know the earlier we teach kids about differences and acceptance, the more the tendency that it will stick," says Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles-based child psychologist.
"Teachers have to have the training and start to take action," Jennings says. "It starts with administrators. It has to be a team effort. It [change] has to have policies, training and involve parents."
Slowly, things are improving. Eight states have laws protecting lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender students. With groups like GSA and greater media exposure about gays, more kids are feeling safer, experts say. "The gay students in those schools [with GSAs] were more than 10 percent less likely to say they felt unsafe at school than the students who don't have those groups," Jennings says, quoting a National Mental Health Association survey.
Roslyn School District in New York, a culturally-diverse and affluent community about 20 miles from New York City on Long Island, started ahead of the game, according to Michele Glenn, faculty advisor for the Gay Straight Alliance at Roslyn High School. Even before the GSA was formed five years ago, there was no evidence of physical abuse due to sexual orientation and there were minimal harassment incidents compared to other districts, Glenn says.
But there was room for improvement. The students in GSA have talked at faculty meetings to train teachers how to treat students who use such comments as, "You're a dyke" or "That's so gay." Teachers are encouraged to ask students, "What do you mean by that?" Even if students don't have ill intentions, they must be taught that by saying such things they are not complimenting someone and could potentially hurt someone, Glenn says. Even classroom discussions can include gay issues if the moment arises. When an assignment was passed out on pink paper recently in Spanish class, which Glenn co-teaches, they started to discuss pink as a color and why it is perceived as a feminine color. From there, they talked about strong men who wear pink and about metro-sexuals, or straight men who are well-dressed and well-groomed. One gay student then talked about two shows about gay men and how stereotypical they are.
When Glenn and other teachers hear negative talk in hallways, she and others will stop and say, "Excuse me? What did you say?" And most times, students will apologize because they know it's wrong, she says.
"Students are more aware now," Glenn says. "And it has increased teacher awareness."
Some expets say even if that doesn't work, they'll settle for the threat of lawsuits to limit harassment. "I would much rather know that the school district cares that harassment is wrong," Gingrich says. "But if attacking their bank account is the way to get their attention, I'll take it."
When Being a Kid Turns Into a Crime
Statistics show that more children are sent to juvenile courts for minor offenses than is necessary
In Palm Beach County, Fla., a 6-year-old student is arrested for trespassing on school property after walking through the school yard, after school, on his way home.
In Indianola, Miss., elementary school students are arrested for talking during assembly.
And in Irvington, N.J., two elementary school boys are charged with terrorist-like threatening for playing cops and robbers with a paper gun.
The above incidents allegedly occurred in the past two years and reveal some extreme reactions to offenses that could be handled in school, according to an Advancement Project report released in 2003. Instead, the incidents end up in court.
Derailed: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track is a new report that shows how zero tolerance in some schools creates a dead-end path for some students who are shoved into courts.
"The juvenile justice system is not about rehabilitation and counseling," says Judith Browne, Advancement Project senior attorney and author of the report. "For a lot of these kids ... it becomes a revolving door. ... They've been treated like a criminal so they start thinking that perhaps they are a criminal."
Many of them end up missing school, failing classes and acting belligerent because they feel no one supports them, Browne adds.
The problem started in the mid-1980s, when a growth of juvenile crime rates scared some into thinking that a generation of super-predators, or amoral youths who were products of single-parent families and a lenient judicial system, were the new criminals in America. Zero tolerance was the answer to keep them in line in schools, which were filled with metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs and security officers, the report states.
"We need to find the happy medium where we can have safety without throwing away the future of youth," Browne says.
Browne suggests that districts start from the top to keep minor juvenile offenses in school. "A lot is based on leadership in the school," she says.
Browne is working on a two-year project in Palm Beach County, Denver and Chicago to get communities to set standards for offenses that warrant arrest. She says the project may turn out to be a model for other communities to alleviate the problem.
Palm Beach (Fla.) County's Safe Schools Program offers various options for students, not just court, according to Alison Adler, director of the program. She says the Advancement Project report uses Palm Beach County as an example of court referrals, but she says the program involves a lot more. Adler also adds that the 6-year-old who was mentioned earlier in the story and was arrested for trespassing on school property was doing more than that, but she did not provide details, referring questions to School Police Chief Jim Kelly. He could not be reached for comment.
Students that would otherwise be arrested are diverted to Youth Court, which is in the county courthouse before a judge, but the alleged perpetrator can plead their case in front of their peers, Adler says. "The recidivism rate is around 8 percent," she says. But in typical juvenile court, the rate can be as high as 30 percent, she says.
"We admitted we needed to do a better job. We needed more consistent enforcement and consistent re-teaching of the rules," Adler says. "We're not innocent."
But she says the district does offer after-school programs in every middle school. And Youth Court, anti-bullying curricula, and yearly safety meetings for principals are other positive aspects of the program, Adler says.
Angela Pascopella is features editor.