Sane School House Safety

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No national youth policy issue is more off track than the effort to make schools safe for children and staff. A series of shootings during the 1990s reached a crescendo with the Columbine carnage, which left 15 dead.

In its aftermath, Congress revved up appropriations for additional grants for school safety. The total this year is about $1 billion. While no one keeps precise track, it is apparent that most of the spending goes to perimeter security enhancements (such as metal detectors) backed up by cameras and cops. Once the student body is safely screened, the learning climate is ruled by the simple-to-understand and simply moronic concept of zero tolerance. Infractions, no matter how trite, are punished with a lack of calibration or commonsense worthy of the Taliban. Hence the steady flow of news stories about kids – even in grade school – suspended or expelled for pointing a bang-bang finger at another kid, possessing a nail clipper or doodling combat scenes in a notebook.

Just what are the results of this ham-fisted and expensive school security strategy? First, schools have the same victimization rates today as in 1976. (Schools were never particularly homicidal venues to begin with: For every youth killed at school, 40 are murdered elsewhere). The respected Monitoring the Future survey conducted by Lloyd Johnston at the University of Michigan found that high school seniors in 1976 and 1998 (the latest year available) report that an identical percentage (85) were free at school from violence, threat of violence, theft or any other criminal behavior.

Second, there are no rigorous evaluations demonstrating that architectural barriers, metal detectors, cameras (some monitored at the local police station) or cops in the hallways make schools safer. This approach has been a bonanza for security equipment manufacturers.

The number of armed uniformed officers patrolling the halls is tough to determine. But since 1999, more than 4,500 school-based police officers have been hired just through the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services. The National Association of School Resource Officers has 8,000 school-based police officers as members, but estimates that many more nonmembers are on duty in the schools.

What has climbed steeply are school suspensions and expulsions. From 1974 to 1998, reports the U.S. Department of Education, those numbers have almost doubled: from 3.17 percent of all students in 1974 to 6.8 percent in 1998. That amounts to some 3.2 million suspended in 1998 – a number equal to the entire school-age population of the 17 smallest states in 1999. African-American students are 2.8 times more likely to be suspended than are whites, yet fatal school shooters are almost exclusively white boys.

What makes schools safe are students feeling that they are part of a supportive, positive web of peer friendships, along with ties that youths have to trusted and trustworthy adults – family members, teachers or youth workers. A U.S. Secret Service study of all fatal school shootings between 1974 and 1999 found that more than 75 percent of the shooters had revealed their violent plans to someone.

The Department of Education reports that of the 6,000-plus handguns seized at schools during the 1996-97 school year, 92 percent were discovered thanks to tips from fellow students. In January, a 17-year-old at a New York City high school, aided by a friend, easily bypassed metal detectors, then hours later shot and wounded two students over a petty grievance.

Ultimately, keeping drugs, weapons and other contraband out of schools depends on young people themselves. Their cooperation is conditioned on the reasonableness of adult responses to alleged threats. For teens, the past treatment of whistleblowing students by school authorities is the most important factor in determining their eagerness to step forward.

The case of New Bedford, Mass., whistleblower AmyLee Bowman (see story) illustrates two school safety lessons. First, neither the $4 million in federal school safety funds given to the school district, nor the 100 video cameras or two-way radios that those funds paid for at the high school, played any role in thwarting an alleged plan for “another Columbine” – a plot that left four students (including Bowman) arrested and charged with felonies. The part played by the school resource officer whom Bowman told of the plot could have just as easily been filled by an unarmed youth worker.

Second, the grotesque treatment of Bowman by local officials sends a powerful message to the nation’s youth: Don’t squeal. Harsh punishment is certain, while the execution of any lethal plot is statistically remote.

What is the priority here: Safe schools or severe retribution? Education policy-makers have opted for punishment. When it comes to school safety, Mark Twain’s observation a century ago rings true: “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice.Then he made school boards.”