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How Safe Is Your School?

Following a number of school shootings, educators and politicians recommend safety policies

The recent school shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were yet another wake-up call for school administrators that violence can happen anywhere at any time and that schools must develop violence prevention and emergency plans.

Although no security plan is perfect, it can offer clear direction during a crisis when confusion and fear take over. For instance, just weeks before a student was killed on September 27 during a hostage standoff at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo., the school conducted an emergency evacuation drill as part of its safety plan. So when the shooting did occur, students and teachers didn't panic and evacuated the building in an orderly fashion, potentially avoiding further chaos and injuries.

In an effort to increase school safety, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales hosted the Conference on School Safety in October at the request of President Bush. Spellings and Gonzalez led three panel discussions with speakers including Columbine survivor Craig Scott and Delbert Elliott, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence in Boulder, Colo.

"There is no room left for thinking about much of anything other than test scores. There's the lack of focus on school safety that we had after Columbine."-Paul Houston, executive director, AASA

No new policies were introduced. Neither were any funding changes made. Some educators believed the conference was a good starting point while others viewed it as nothing more than political rhetoric during an election season.

"Whether it's a congressman or governor or state legislator, somehow [politicians] are supposed to show action," says Paul Houston, executive director at the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va. "The reality is there's not a lot they can do [besides] looking at the issue of funding."

He says federal funds for school safety have steadily declined over the past five years. According to CNN, funding was reduced from $439.2 million in 2001 to $346.5 million this year and will drop again in 2007 to $310 million.

Priorities Questioned

While school safety ranks among educators' top issues, Houston says it moves up and down their list of priorities depending upon their district's challenges and national events. Before the Columbine shootings in 1999 that left 15 people dead, he says some educators believed that violence couldn't happen at their school. Columbine single-handedly changed their perception, creating a flurry of prevention activities ranging from training staff to using metal detectors.

But school safety was knocked down a few steps after the No Child Left Behind act became law in 2002. "It has sucked the oxygen out of the system," says Houston. "There is no room left for thinking about much of anything other than test scores. There's the lack of focus on school safety that we had after Columbine. We've got to refocus people back on school safety."

Besides developing safety and emergency plans-which some schools still lack-he says educators also need to follow the ABCs of school safety:

Awareness: All staff need to be trained on how to recognize and handle potentially dangerous situations at their school, whether it's a stranger roaming the halls or a strange truck parked in the school's lot.

Balance: Educators need to develop a balanced perspective and approach to school safety. Over-reacting by building a prison like environment in schools can create even bigger safety issues.

Control and Connection: School administrators need to control their campuses by connecting with students through staff or school resource officers who work in collaboration with local police.

"Schools should be a place of some joy and of a sense of openness," Houston says. "You want kids not to feel so repressed and beaten down. So you have to have the view of there are some things you can do to marginally make them safer but is the price worth it? I'm not sure it is."

Proof in the Pudding

Since 1992, the earliest year that data is available, there have been 418 school-related deaths, according to the National School Safety Center's Report on School Associated Violent Deaths. The vast majority-323-were caused by shootings. Yet the violent crime rate, including rapes and fights, dropped from 48 per 1,000 students in 1992 to 28 in 2003.

One way to ensure that those numbers keep declining is to educate school staff and parents on bullying prevention, according to many bully experts. William Lassiter, manager of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C., which offers such workshops, points to a nearly 30-year study conducted by sociologist Dan Olweus of over 100,000 children at 100 different elementary schools in Norway and the U.S. It tracked third-graders who were identified as bullies as well as their targets. By the time the bullies were 24 years old, 40 percent had been arrested. By the time their targets reached age 27, they were seven times more likely to be involved in an abusive domestic relationship than those that were not targets.

In a Secret Service study of over 250 school shootings, 75 percent of the shooters said they were tired of being bullied. The same report revealed that in 81 percent of these cases, students told someone about their violent crime before taking action.

Lassiter says the purpose of this workshop is to raise awareness of parents, staff and students that bullying is not a natural part of growing up and should never be tolerated.

No Magic

Schools can be one of the safest places in a community, but it won't happen magically, adds Kenneth S. Trump, president at National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland. But the White House conference confirmed what Trump says he already knew: Many schools still have not mastered the basics of school violence prevention and security or emergency planning. Many of those who attended-including Trump-believe there should be a call to action.

"Congress needs to take some emergency action in restructuring and retooling the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program," he says, adding that Bush, the program's director, and the Office of Management and Budget have labeled the program ineffective. "Congress has been taking the approach over the last couple of years of allowing it to bleed a slow death while our children are bleeding a fast death in our schoolhouses. [Congress needs to] get on top of it, retool it, restructure it and relocate the responsibility for school security, school policing and school emergency planning out of the education department and over in the Justice Department."

Meanwhile, school districts must get more involved. For example, he says they need to evaluate and refine their security measures, including the physical aspects such as lighting, and update and implement existing emergency plans. He points to one school's crisis plan that assigned responsibility to a teacher who had since retired.

Likewise, he says a fourth "R"-relationships-has been added to the three "Rs" of education. All school employees must develop stronger relationships with students, public safety officials and others beyond their schoolhouse borders. He says the first time school officials meet their local police should not be in the school parking lot during a bomb threat evacuation.

"We know what needs to be done," says Trump, explaining that Congress must restore funding that has been cut and give it directly to schools. "When the next incident happens, we're not going to have a second White House conference on school safety. Somebody is going to have to do something."

Carol Patton is a contributing editor.

Related Information

Security Books

Bully Prevention: Tips and

Strategies for School Leaders and Classroom Teachers

Corwin Press,, $25.95

Author Elizabeth Barton addresses bullying and school violence with practical strategies that can be applied immediately in both elementary and secondary schools. Among the topics covered are the relationships among bullies, victims and witnesses; case studies and vignettes; role plays for use with students; and guidelines for intervening in bullying sessions. Using these tools, a school-wide antibullying program can be planned and implemented.

Violence Prevention and

Conflict Resolution

Harvard Education Press,, $14.95

Originally published in 2001 and updated in 2006, this collection of articles addresses topics such as responding to bullying and cliques, supporting new teachers in classroom management, and ensuring a safe school without unfairly labeling rambunctious students as being violent. Effective strategies for violence prevention and conflict resolution are offered.

Surviving Bullies Workbook:

Skills to Help Protect You from Bullying

Lulu,, $14.99

This workbook aims to help educators work with children to survive and overcome bullying and protect themselves by developing their own social networks. Specifically designed for use with children ages 11 through 16 (grades 6-10), it is a thoroughly researched, step-by-step instruction guide to dealing with and overcoming the painful childhood experience of being bullied. Revealing the root causes involved with bullying, it demystifies bullies while offering exercises for escaping from the isolation trap, rebuilding personal confidence, developing an antidote to the effects of bullying, developing the skills and opportunities for making new friends, and building new social networks.

Stopping School Violence

Author House,, $15.97

Aimed at parents, this volume also includes tips for teachers and schools. Topics covered include signs that indicate a child is a bully, early warning signs of violence, tips for handling cyberbullying, and conversation starters.

Wise Highs: How to Thrill, Chill & Get Away from It All Without Alcohol or Other Drugs

Free Spirit Publishing,, $15.95

Making connections and finding an appropriate outlet for energy can address a number of hazards students encounter. Aimed at teens, this book offers more than 150 tips on how to get high and relieve stress healthfully and naturally, without using drugs. It includes comments and survey results from over 2,000 people aged 11-18 on subjects ranging from peer pressure to decision making.

Urban Teaching: The Essentials

Teachers College Press,, $15.95

This guide to urban teaching has been updated and revised to reflect today's challenges. Covering everything from the pressures of testing to dealing with bureaucracy, it also includes a classroom management chapter that discusses dealing with school violence and establishing moral authority.

All Kids Are Our Kids:

What Communities Must Do to Raise Caring and Responsible Children and Adolescents

Jossey-Bass,, $19.95

Filled with new data, new strategies, numerous case histories, and practical working solutions, this revised edition presents a positive, nonpartisan message that is more timely than ever. Forty building blocks of healthy development that are essential for all youth, regardless of their background, are introduced. All segments of the community are challenged to share in the responsibility for taking action to ensure that all children have what they need to grow up healthy, successful and caring.

-Edited by Ann McClure