Making Schools Safe for Kids
Americans have seen the news footage and heard the testimonies of the children of Jonesboro, Ark; Paducah, Ky.; Springfield, Ore.; and Pearl, Miss. These stories now serve as reminders that kids can become killers and that terrible tragedy can happen anywhere, at any time, for seemingly no reason. A crisis has reached America's schools, and it is time to take a serious look at the problem and devise ways to make sure such tragedies never occur again. Right now, it appears there is much to do. Surveys have found that:
10% of all public schools experienced one or more serious violent crimes (i.e., murder, rape or other sexual battery, suicide, physical attack or fight with a weapon, or robbery) that were reported to police or other law enforcement officials during the 1996–1997 school year.
45% of elementary schools, 74% of middle schools, and 77% of high schools reported one or more violent incidents.
The percentage of students reporting street gang presence at school nearly doubled between 1989 and 1995, increasing from 15 to 28%.
The rate of firearm deaths among children under 13 is nearly 12 times higher in the U.S. than in 25 other industrialized countries combined.
What possibly can explain these alarming trends? Though it is true that the proportion of adolescents perpetrating violent offenses is just slightly up in recent years, it is necessary to stay on top of the problem to make sure there isn't a resurgence. Furthermore, violent acts that result in serious injury or death have risen. Since 1998, the adolescent homicide rate has more than doubled. To explain this trend, experts point to the increase in handgun use. Studies have found that an estimated 1,000,000 children between 6th and 12th grade have carried guns to school at some point during the last school year. Other explanations look at what elements are influencing youngsters. Violence on TV and in movies, drug and alcohol use, and underdeveloped conflict management skills all are contributors.
In September, 1998, about 60 mayors from the United States Conference of Mayors Leadership met in Salt Lake city, Utah, with Attorney General Janet Reno; police chiefs; education experts; health, parks, recreation, and arts officials; representatives from the entertainment industry and news media; and students. They spent an entire day hammering out a National Action plan on School Violence and Kids. They looked at "best practices" — what programs are in place and working in cities around the country — and brainstormed about what types of things have not been tried and should be. In October, the Action Plan was brought to President Clinton's White House Conference on School Safety, where it won overwhelming support from all the participating parties.
The measures proposed include actions that can be taken at the local level, as well as initiatives that require the Federal government to pass a law or provide funding. Preventing outbreaks of violence is the goal, while keeping in sight the importance of a quality education and meeting children's basic needs. An emphasis on violence prevention does not have to focus solely on metal detectors and stricter punishments. Examined were ways to provide enriching activities for youngsters and how to ensure that every child receives the emotional and physical things he or she needs. To mount a truly comprehensive attack on the problem families, schools, communities, local governments, and even the President have a role to play.
At home, parents can prevent their offspring from turning to violence by becoming more involved in their children's lives. They can volunteer in schools, monitor what their kids are watching on TV and discuss the consequences of violence. In homes where domestic violence exists, parents need to realize that children have to be removed from that environment and authorities should be allowed to do so.
Many measures can be taken by schools to help students get a better educational experience. For example, schools can consider later starting times to meet children's learning patterns better and could extend the school day to reduce those hours in the afternoon when kids are vulnerable and tempted to turn to crime and violence. All schools should follow the example of Long Beach, Calif., and institute school uniforms, which can promote discipline and have been proven to cut down on violent activity. Schools can add conflict resolution and anger management techniques to their curriculum, starting as early as kindergarten, and teachers need to be trained to be effective classroom managers and to enforce discipline fairly. When teachers are not occupied completely with handling out-of-control kids, they can spend more time on class lessons.
It is recommended that 100,000 school counselors be added to the nation's front line against school violence. What kids need most is someone to talk to and someone to look out for their interests. Many of the accused in recent cases of school violence are children with severe mental problems, youngsters who felt left out or lack social bonds. Counselors would monitor those under their care and intervene before violence erupts.
Stronger deterrents such as metal detector should be made available in the schools that need them. The idea is not to create a prison atmosphere at the schools, but to bring peace of mind to teachers and students. With the metal detector, they won't have to worry that someone in the building may have a weapon. A policy of zero tolerance of drugs and alcohol must be enforced at every school.
Involving the community
Rewards should be granted to good kids, and opportunities for youngsters to have positive role models and mentors could be provided. Local news media can become involved by featuring stories about student's accomplishments or providing outlets for students' writing and ideas.
Schools should become centers for activity in after-school hours. Almost 30% of juvenile offenses are committed on school days between the hours of 2 and 8 p.m. By giving kids alternatives, these offenses can be eradicated. Programs in areas such as continued learning, physical education, arts, music, and recreation should be offered after school. In some cases, schools can become the locale for health clinics, social services agencies, and police involvement so that children can have better access to these organization.
Communities can help to fill the gap during the time between when kids leave school and their parents finish their workday. Religious institutions, arts councils, city parks and recreation services, and others need to respond to the crisis by offering activities and a place to go. Business community members can reach out to youngsters by giving them after-school jobs or volunteering as mentors. Technical assistance might be donated to help programs get launched. To make these efforts work, transportation must be provided from school to the place where the programs take place. A regional youth service hotline could be set up as a clearing house to inform kids and parents about the wealth of opportunities for enrichment their community offers.
Local police departments can become more involved with the children in their community. In fact, just an officer's presence in a school can help to reduce violence and provide role models. Police could work harder to enforce truancy laws and even make house calls for kids who continually are absent from school. Police officers could be viewed as friends and mentors to children.
The media — both news outlets and the entertainment industry — should accept their responsibility to the greater community. That means cutting down on sensationalist coverage of violence and rejecting commercials and sponsorships that implicitly or explicitly encourage violence, particularly during hours that kids are watching TV. Programs with a high level of violence should be restricted to late-night hours, and more non-violent programming should be scheduled.
Finally, legislation is critical. One area where states or the Federal government can help is in building a comprehensive effort to reduce youth-related gun violence. "One gun a month" legislation would prohibit anyone from purchasing more than one firearm per month, thereby stopping those who buy in bulk and then sell to underage or criminal users. The Federal gun show loophole needs to be eliminated to cut sales of weapons to youths. Government support for personalized guns is crucial, so that only an authorized user, identified by a fingerprint or a key, is able to fire a weapon. A law that holds a gun owner criminally liable for children who gain access to improperly stored weapons would dissuade those who otherwise would be careless with their firearms. Laws also are needed to revoke confidentiality for juveniles who commit violent felonies so that records can be transferred to the adult criminal justice system and made available to school systems.
With a comprehensive attack on youth violence at several levels — home, school, community, and the highest reaches of government — this crisis can be surmounted. If even a handful of the suggestions proposed in this article become reality, they will make a tremendous difference in the lives of many youngsters. There is nothing more important than America's children. The nation owes it to them to provide quality education in a safe environment and to give them all the resources possible for a healthy and full life.
(Selected from USA TODAY, May 1999, written by Deedee Corradini)