In recent years, tragedies have been visited upon schools across the country. From Kentucky to Oregon to Colorado, the notion of schools as safe havens has been shattered by the sound of gunfire. These acts are not limited to any geographic regions or family backgrounds, nor do they have a single catalyst. Those who have committed such heinous acts have done so for different reasons, at different times, in different schools. But these acts of school violence have at least one thing in common- they have spurred all of us to take a look at what can be done to better protect children and teachers at school.
Protecting our children is not simply a matter of public policy. It is a matter of strengthening basic values, of teaching children right from wrong, of instilling in them respect for others. We each have a responsibility to work to end youth violence and to keep schools safe for children and for those who teach them. Youth violence in many schools has reached universal proportions.
It is not only happening in our high schools, it has also made its way into our elementary and middle schools. Everyone seems to have a different perspective on why there is such a problem with school safety. Some say it is the parents’ fault, some say it is the media, and others blame the schools. Yet, the question still remains. What can be done to make schools safer for the children and staff?
One thing we need to do is learn to listen to our children and observe their behavior. According to Dr. Ronald D. Stephens, Executive Director of the National School Safety Center, there are some common characteristics among youth who have caused school- associated violent deaths. Accounts of these tragic incidents repeatedly indicate that in most cases, a troubled youth has demonstrated or has talked about problems with bullying and feelings of isolation, anger, depression, and frustration.
Some of the characteristics that Dr. Stephens provides on his checklist are: history of tantrums and uncontrollable outbursts, habitually makes violent threats when angry, has a background of serious disciplinary problems at school and in the community, is on the fringe of his/her peer group with few or no close friends, is preoccupied with weapons, displays cruelty to animals, and the list goes on. These characteristics should serve to alert school administrators, teachers, and parents that something is wrong.
For as long as we can remember there have been crimes at school, whether they were stealing or starting fights in the cafeteria. What is especially frightening these days is the increased availability of weapons, guns in particular. The fact that more and more weapons are showing up in schools underscores how readily accessible they are.
In 1996, 5 percent of all 12th graders reported that they had been injured on purpose with a weapon such as a knife, gun, or club during the prior 12 months while they were at school, and 12 percent reported that they had been injured on purpose without a weapon. This number has not significantly changed during the past 20 years. Between 1993 and 1997, there was an overall decline in the percentage of students in grades 9 to 12 who reported carrying a weapon to school at least 1 day in the prior 30 days. About 3 percent of high school seniors reported carrying a gun to school at least 1 day during the previous 4 weeks.
Although serious violent crimes constitute a small percentage of the total amount of school crime and homicide is extremely rare, the possibility still exists. In the 1992-93 and 1993-94 school years combined, 63 students ages 5-19 were murdered at school. The number of multiple –victim homicide events at school has increased, from two in the 1992-93 school year to six in 1997-98. The number of victims has also increased. What is it going to take to open our eyes that something needs to be done?
There are many things that we, as a community, can do to ensure our children’s safety in school. We must encourage the staff and parents to get involved. Parents can volunteer as monitors and teachers’ aides. Youth are less likely to misbehave or engage in violent acts if parents from their neighborhood are highly visible on a daily basis at their school. The community can also encourage the school to set up counseling programs and conflict resolution programs if it does not already have them.
The school can also set up classes for parents to teach them effective parenting skills, vocational training, and the opportunity to earn their GED in the case that they never graduated high school. Some school communities have established tutoring and mentor programs for those students with students lacking a “significant adult” in their lives. These tutors and mentors consist of volunteers from local businesses, colleges and universities, churches and retiree organizations.
It is not only the community and the school who have to get involved in order to make a real change. At the 1998 White House Conference on School Safety, President Clinton announced a series of new initiatives in dealing with school violence. In one of the initiatives, President Clinton proposed a $12 million School Emergency Response to Violence to help schools and local communities respond to school- related violent deaths.
The president also announced a new $65 million initiative to hire up to 2,000 community police and resource officers to assist the estimated 10 percent of schools with serious crime problems. He also announced plans to reform the Safe and Drug –Free Schools Program. Hopefully these initiatives will be put in effect soon, and hopefully they will work. Whatever they decide to do better get done quickly before it gets any worse.