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Searching for security

How do you know if a school is safe? Pretty paint jobs won't tell you! Let these six steps help you research the most fundamental issue for every school.

By Carol Lloyd

“We’re thrilled,” declared my friend when I called to find out what school they’d chosen for their 5-year-old daughter. “There’s this beautiful garden, and the teachers seem brilliant. There are science and art projects everywhere you look.”

My friend was one of those übermoms — she’d toured a bazillion private and public schools. She thought carefully about what would be right for her little learning sponge.

From dream to nightmare

But within a few weeks of school starting, she left me a message: “We’ve been in kindergarten hell!” Her daughter loved the new school and was learning like gangbusters, but something wasn’t working. “We’re switching schools."

What could justify a parent summarily yanking her child out of a school she loves?

How unsafe schools affect student learning

In a word: safety. For most parents, school security is the place where the rubber meets the rule book. If your child isn’t safe from violence, bullying, sexual harassment, and fear — even if everything else is perfect — brilliant teachers and gorgeous gardens just can’t balance it out. After all, studies suggest that when children feel threatened, both their academic performance and emotional health suffer. Stress hormones impair kids’ neurological development, and they are literally unable to learn in the same way.

The problem with safety statistics

But school safety (or a lack thereof) isn’t as visible as a new paint job or a science display, as my friend discovered. It took just a single child with persistently violent behavior — and an administration that didn’t know how to handle him — for her child's dream school to turn into a nightmare. 

Unfortunately, safety statistics are not as easily available as they should be. During a 2009 hearing before Congress, experts bemoaned the sorry state of the nation's school-safety statisitcs and how shoddy records have a deleterious effect on school security as a whole.

                                                                                                Tips for parents ...

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"Thank you for sharing the wonderful tips about searching a right high school, especially the safety topic. I totally agree 'if a child is not safe from violence, bullying sexual harassment and fear -- even if everything else is perfect -- brilliant teachers and a gorgeous campus just can't balance it out.' Overall, the principal is the key person to handle them all..... some don't deal with the problems and let them grow out of control. I experienced an coop school, even it has high score on most every thing, but the bullying and sexual harassment are the critical issue. Of course, I pulled out my child. Shame on the principle, she denies every bad thing has happened."
"Dear Carole, Great article on school safety. I am going to follow your advice. Thank you "
"I wrote to my daughters school regarding safety issues, which I believe require attention. Several months on and still no visual improvements were made. I then met with the Head Master and put my concerns forward. Again a few weeks passed and still nothing has been done to improve current security, hygiene and other child safety issues. What should I do next?"
"I can get statistics on what's been referred to law enforcement, but I get the impression that most incidents are not reported and therefore, don't show up in the statistics. I don't feel like I get a true picture. Most other parents don't know any more than we do. The one's that work there, won't give us the real scoop because they don't want to be known for talking bad about the schoo. How can a parent really know what's going on?"
"The safety and security of school children will from time to time be questioned; however, the biggest issue remains how school administrations handle reported incidents and/or address parents’ concerns. My personal experience has been of school administrations tepid response to an incident and not moving aggressively enough to assuage a concerned parent."
"Statistics will not tell you much. I had to leave a school where the principal said all the right things, but refused to deal with a bully. My son tried to stay home on a daily basis. When I complained, the principal first tried to blame my son and then reached out to my husband, and made it sound like I had a problem because I was 'the only one complaining.' As I later found out by talking to other moms, this was far from the truth. In the end, we switched schools, and are now very happy. My son loves his new school and we have had no problems. I was one of those people that did all the research and all it showed me was that the school was one of the best in the state, with no discipline problems. So my advice: Do the research and then listen to your child - if he is telling you there is something wrong make sure you investigate you may find out the place is not safe. "
"I pulled my son out of a charter school that we loved (with pretty gardens and the promise of a nurturing environment)because he felt unsafe due to being physically harrassed by older bullies, a teacher that was sort of a bully herself,and an administration that chose to ignore it all due to a lack of resourses to fix it; and wild dogs running around the grounds (who also attacked and killed 20 chickens. Now my son is happy and feels very safe at a local public school."
"When selecting a school for your child ask about the bullying policy, other educational programs to address violence, gangs, etc. Understanding the school's disciplinary policy is important, but it's more important to look for a proactive policy than a reactive one. "
"Agree wholeheartedly with this article. When your kindergartener is begging you not to leave him in after school, perhaps it is time to find out what is going on. When the kids come home with bruises, don't let it slide. When one of the teachers gets hit in the cross-walk, stop letting the principal brush off your requests for a crossing guard or drop off lane by the school. "
"When I spoke to the Superintendent about concerns I had in regard to the school district my son attends, not five hours later my husband was asked what my problem was. [?] Despite knowing and echoing my concerns, as a retired educator, he found my espression of them to be personally humiliating. This has caused tension at home, as well as between the teachers and myself. They continue to ask me if things, 'meet[my]expectations and concerns.' Can you suggest a better way that the direct path I took? Michigan Mom"
"Just because a school has a higher expulsion rate doesn't mean it is a bad or unsafe school. It could mean just the opposite; it is a very safe school because the administration doesn't put up with any students who willfully disrupt the flow of learning. Weak administrators are far more dangerous in the school than kids, or teachers. I would look for very strong leadership, that would be a better indicator of what will or will not work in a building. Be very careful about going to district personnel, they are there as much to put forth the good news right or wrong than fix problems. Parents and kids are as good an indicator as all these reports you suggest. Just walking the halls and being a little bit involved will give your gut the feeling you need as well as good feedback from those in the know. If you consistently hear positive messages coming from kids, parents and teachers and those are in the majority that can be a bonus when deciding the strengths and weaknesse! s of a building"
"One of the biggest threats to the safety of our children in some schools stems from the fact that in 20 of our 50 states, teachers are still allowed to use corporal punishment on students. In checking out the safety of any given school or district, a parent should take great caution in enrolling his or her child in such a toxic environment. When licensed professionals model violence, you can only imagine what the school climate is like for these children."
"I have researched and investigated school 'safety' for more than 30 yrs. This article misses the point. While violence, bullying, and shootings capture media attention, they are rare events. So-called accidents such as falls, sports injuries, pedestrian-vehicle mishaps, etc. are more common. The best 'test' of a school is to see if the principal actual ensures teacher vigilance by monitoring their conduct and sanctioning lapses. Leadership (or its) lack at the principal level is always determinative. Schools are rarely proactive in accident prevent."