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.

Schools are safer than they were a decade ago

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:

  • Statistically, school is the safest place for children to be.
  • Students are more likely to be victims of violence outside of school than inside.
  • School-related violence is on the decline.

Some troubling indicators persist

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.

What schools are doing

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.”

The latest trends in school violence prevention

Vigilance in implementing both hard and soft programs has resulted in more comprehensive approaches and, as a result, improved school safety.

While hard programs may avert some violent acts, they don’t address the underlying issue that soft programs focus on, including teaching students to understand and control their emotions, particularly anger.

Alicia Santamaria, of the California-based Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center (PCRC), an organization that provides in-school conflict resolution training, believes that teaching children to talk it out and to negotiate is important in preventing violence.

Post-Columbine, PCRC received many more calls for anti-bullying training. Santamaria also notes that there is now a heightened awareness about the negative effects of epithets and put-downs.

“We hear terms like ‘enrichment programs,’ ‘character education,’ ‘school safety initiatives,’ but perhaps calling them ‘soft’ in a society that values strength and brawn isn’t doing them enough justice,” Santamaria says. “These programs and skills are extremely powerful and have the capability of transforming the climate in our schools.”

Stan Adamson, a mental health counselor and anger management specialist at The Door, a Manhattan youth development agency, feels that a multipronged approach to violence prevention is best. “There should be no tolerance for serious infractions, but there should be a range of interventions available for behavior problems. A young person needs to learn how to use a social-skills response to a difficult situation rather than an aggressive response. When he experiences some success using these skills approaches to dealing with conflict, the student usually becomes motivated to learn more.”

A move away from old-fashioned detention and suspension

Many principals are looking at alternatives to having children sit in rooms by themselves as punishment for misbehaving. This form of detention removes the student from the learning process and doesn’t address the root of the behavior that landed him in detention in the first place. A more productive approach is to have the troublemaker see a counselor.

The same thought applies to suspensions and expulsions. Sending the student home often puts him on the streets where society as a whole has to deal with him.

Bateman suggests that throwing a student out of school only contributes to what has been called the school-to-prison pipeline. “States with high numbers of suspensions and expulsions also have high numbers in the juvenile justice system. This is because students who are suspended from school and released to a parent who works often are not supervised.”

No Child Left Behind and persistently dangerous schools

Under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, a school may be labeled as “persistently dangerous” if it meets certain criteria established by each state. If a school is designated as persistently dangerous, the district must inform the school community. Parents may then ask for a transfer to another school.

Many feel that the criteria required to be listed as persistently dangerous is so restrictive that truly dangerous schools are not identified as such. In 2003 only 54 schools in the nation were labeled as persistently dangerous.

What parents can do to improve school safety

In 1998, in response to a school shooting, President Clinton asked the government to produce a guide for schools and parents on how to prevent school violence. As a result, two comprehensive guides were published: Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools and Safeguarding Our Children: An Action Guide.

Components of safe schools

According to Safeguarding Our Children: An Action Guide, a safe school will have three major components:

  • A school-wide foundation for the well being and success of all students.
  • A system for identifying students with acute behavior problems.
  • A system for providing interventions and therapies for at-risk students.

Early warning signs

Both guides list warning signs, as do many other guides available to parents. However, any time there is concern about a student it is important to guard against judging or oversimplifying. Helping the child, and the entire school community, should be the paramount concern.

Below are some of the warning signs that a student may pose a threat to the school. If you observe any of these indicators in a student, report your concerns to school staff. A potentially violent student usually exhibits more than one of the following behaviors:

  • Difficulty eating or sleeping
  • Abuse of animals
  • Unusual attraction to violent entertainment
  • Withdrawal from social interaction
  • Feelings of rejection and/or persecution
  • Unusually intense or frequent violent content in personal writings or artwork
  • A pattern of bullying
  • Intolerance or prejudice against certain groups of people
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Membership in a gang
  • Threats of serious violence

Imminent warning signs

Imminent warning signs require immediate intervention and may include:

  • Physical fighting with others
  • Destruction of property
  • Intense anger for minor reasons
  • Detailed threats of violence
  • Possession of weapons
  • Threats of suicide

Additional benefits of soft programs

Santamaria, of PCRC, feels that teaching conflict prevention always has unforeseen positive results. We often think of conflict resolution programs in terms of how they can contribute to a safer school climate, but the impact on the students involved in the training is tremendous, according to Santamaria.

“The difficult thing about evaluating prevention programs,” she explains, “is that you don’t know what would have happened without them. If two young people resolve their conflict in peer mediation, we will never know what would have happened if the conflict had been allowed to escalate. We would like to think that each conflict that gets resolved through kids using their conflict resolution skills is a success story.

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