Schools can be tough places for our kids. Middle and high schools, in particular, are susceptible to instability and an ambient student culture of intimidation ranging from casual bullying to bona fide violence. The horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December put school safety in the headlines, but schools have been struggling with safety issues for many more years.
Unsafe schools are not really schools at all; they are, at best, soft prisons—lives are lost, futures are undermined, and talent is wasted. Without safe schools we will reform over and over again without success. Safety is an indispensable foundation for learning.
This blog is the first of three on school safety. It outlines the extent of the problem and questions whether more police and guns are the solution. The second examines the underlying causes of school violence and the last identifies schools and programs that have successfully created positive, even joyful, cultures of learning where violence simply has no place.
The parameters of the problem
According to the United States Census (2012), nearly 80 percent of our 83,000 public schools can expect one or more violent incidents during the school year. Nearly 30 out of 1,000 students are victimized every year.
The National Center for Education Statistics (2012) reports that annually there are about 828,000 nonfatal school victimizations; 8 percent of high school students are threatened or injured with a gun, knife, or club; and one or more violent crimes occur in 85 percent of all public schools.
These data do not count crimes that go unreported, bullying (in person and online), threats, taunting, pushing and punching, and demeaning speech. And what happens out of school is equally disturbing. For many students, the ride or walk to school and back home is a gauntlet of danger traversed in fear.
These data are stark but in actuality fail to capture the culture of fear that can undermine the educational missions of schools. When nearly 2 million school-related crimes are committed each year, we are looking at a systemic problem that is larger than quantitative measures convey. Fear undermines hope. And without hope, the purpose of education turns to dust.
Is there a quick-fix?
Given how we all feel about protecting our children, it is perhaps natural to think in the short term and reach for quick-fix policies. Some have suggested that more school-based police is the answer. But what are the unintended consequences of imposing what amounts to martial law in the schools?
I have visited schools where students are exposed to repeated security checks, where armed police roam the halls, where random searches are conducted without warning, and where disciplinary measures include arrest for minor crimes. Most of us would not want to send our child to such a militarized environment.
Moreover, the long arm of the law seldom reaches beyond schools educating our most vulnerable students; I have yet to visit a school in a wealthy suburb or a private school where police stand watch at the classroom door.
Erik Eckholm reports (New York Times, April 12, 2013) that there has been a surge in school arrests for misdemeanors and nonviolent behavior. In Texas, for example, police officers based in schools write more than 100,000 misdemeanor tickets every year. Many of these citations are for minor offences such as scuffling, disorderly conduct, and disrupting class. If a student appears before a justice of the peace or in a municipal court his or her offense is publically recorded and follows him or her for many years to come.
African-American and Hispanic students are four times more likely to be arrested or given criminal citations than white students.
Another quick-fix idea is to arm school personnel. The National Rifle Association and their supporters have suggested we train educators about the use of firearms and increase the number of guns in the schools; some advocate arming teachers and administrators.
Is this the answer? Do we really want our schools to resemble armed camps? Or are we missing the point altogether? Police solve crimes; is the problem of school violence a crime problem or a school culture problem? In my next blog we look at some of the underlying causes of school violence.
Photo Credit: Michael Stravato for The New York Times