Recently, a middle school teacher that I know returned from a faculty meeting about his Catholic school’s beefed up security. A police officer explained that when they respond to an incident they do so with “overwhelming force”. He assured the faculty that thanks to their proximity to downtown, they’d have “150 officers at the school within five minutes.” He also explained why visitors will have to pass through additional security checks and why they have to teach with their classroom doors closed.
Credit Columbine and Sandy Hook for the “schools as fortresses” movement. It parallels our post 9/11 airport experience. A rural Colorado school district is allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons. A USA Today reporter tells the story of Wisconsin teachers that were “being trained to urge kids to keep a can of soup in their desks to throw at a gunman who might enter their classroom.” I’m sure that won’t contribute to a further uptick in childhood anxiety disorders. Maybe we should start putting cans of soup in our carry-on baggage.
Few people are aware that despite the recent spate of tragic, high-profile shootings etched in the public’s mind, schools are safer than they’ve ever been. Some statistics:
• Since 1992, the rate of “victimization,” which includes violent crimes such as assault and rape as well as non-violent crimes such as robbery, purse snatching and pickpocketing, has plummeted, from 181.5 incidents per 1,000 students to 49.2 per 1,000 in 2011.
• Overall, the number of reported “non-fatal victimizations” has dropped by 71%, from 4.3 million in 1992 to 1.2 million in 2011.
• During the 2009-2010 school year, researchers found 1,396 homicides with victims ages 5 to 18. Of those, only 19 took place at school. During the 2010 calendar year, only three of the reported 1,456 youth suicides took place at school.
• Though rare, homicides, suicides and deaths involving intervention by police at school or on the way to or from school dropped 46%, from 57 in the 1992-1993 school year to 31 in the 2010-2011 school year. Over 19 years, researchers counted 863 deaths, or about 45 per year. (Federal data don’t yet include 2011-2012 or 2012-13, when 27 died in the Sandy Hook shooting, including gunman Adam Lanza.)
“Things are better,” a school safety experts concludes, “but they’re not fine.”
So what’s working? Researchers attribute the decline in school violence to a handful of measures:
•Heightened awareness of a school’s culture, including how safe students feel there and how well they get along with teachers and classmates.
•A renewed focus on bullying and mental health issues, with teachers trained to spot troubled kids and intervene before bullying incidents get out of hand.
•Simple security steps such as locking exterior school doors, requiring all visitors to check in at the front office and offering students easy, anonymous ways to report classmates’ threats.
After Sandy Hook, a national school safety leader said, “It’s a huge struggle trying to bring people’s focus back from emotion.” My friend’s faculty meeting is evidence of that. “The enduring lesson of Sandy Hook,” another school safety leader added, “may be the importance of having a well-conceived — and well-rehearsed — emergency response plan. Sandy Hook really reinforced that. By all accounts, the staff really responded well, and they really saved lives.”
Sandy Hook parents, like Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was among the 26 victims, are pushing to expand mental health and wellness services for troubled or isolated kids. Hockley says, “We’re much more focused on, ‘Let’s reach out to the kids who are inside the school and prevent the violence from ever happening in the first place.’”
Ten years ago, American film critic Roger Ebert offered another idea that would also help. Post Columbine, he was asked by a major news network if television and film violence were contributing factors to school violence. Ebert turned the tables on the unsuspecting reporter:
Events like this if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.
Here’s hoping Hockley and Ebert-like common sense prevails over concealed guns and soup cans.