By Marian Wilde
The American public is reeling after the horrific shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. This latest attack follows campus shootings around the country, most recently in Ohio, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and at Virginia Tech.
Despite the recent violence, school shootings have been generally on the decline since the notorious 1999 attack at a high school in Colombine, Colorado, which left 12 students and one teacher dead. As the police investigation unfolds in Connecticut, the fact remains that school shootings are rare and that children are safer in schools than they are outside of them.
In the meantime, parents want to do what they can to ensure that their schools are safe. Some experts say that increasing a school's physical security, such as adding metal detectors, is not a realistic solution. If an attacker is intent upon killing others, metal detectors present a relatively ineffective barrier. Instead, these experts say that schools would do better by addressing the root causes of violence: bullying, a lack of a respectful environment, and neglecting despair and depression in students.
An exhaustive study of school shootings compiled in 2002 by the U.S. Secret Service and the U. S. Department of Education is available online. One document produced by the study, Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates includes an action plan for school leaders to make their schools safe. The final report issued by the study, called Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States, discusses the characteristics of school attackers.
For a succinct distillation of the information about school attackers, see Ten Myths About School Shootings.
Every year the federal government issues what it calls a snapshot of school violence. This survey, called Indicators of School Crime and Safety, is a compilation of data from several government agencies, including the FBI, the Center for Disease Control and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The survey looks at victimization, bullying, student perceptions of school safety and many other topics.
The latest of these snapshots was released in 2006, using data from 2003 through 2006. This study, and others, indicate that:
While these numbers are encouraging, some indicators are troubling. When 24 percent of all students report gangs present at their school, and 25 percent of high school students say illegal drugs are available on school property, clearly there is still much work to be done to improve the safety of our schools.
Schools responded to the Columbine shootings with "hard" programs: mandatory expulsion for bringing a weapon to school, zero tolerance policies, improved crisis response plans and random locker checks.
While hard programs have their place, some experts believe increased use of "soft" programs, a collective term for programs that teach conflict resolution, anti-bullying, anger management, and emotional intelligence is what will fundamentally improve school safety.
Lisa Bateman of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, a North Carolina resource center dedicated to promoting school safety, notes that "our schools reacted to the major incidents with a couple of major trends. One was a move toward more physical prevention of violence, such as metal detectors and school security officers. The other was that schools are focusing on staff training on how to recognize warning signs and looking at equipping teachers and students in conflict management skills."
"But," she cautions, "while schools are doing a better job of keeping campuses secure, our schools mirror our society. If we have a violent society, we will have violent schools."
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