Safe and drug-free schools
Safe and drug-free schools have been the top concern of parents for the past 3 years, according to Gallup polls regarding our nation’s six educational goals. The first five goals focus on academic achievement and increasingly higher standards, but it is the author’s view that they cannot be achieved unless Goal #6–creating safe and drug-free schools–is accomplished first.
The President and the Congress have recognized the importance of this priority by the passage of the Safe Schools Act of 1994, which provides funding and technical assistance to school systems that wish to develop safe school plans. The concern for safe schools also has penetrated federal drug-free schools funding with the inclusion of violence prevention as a top priority. These federal mandates, combined with increasing demands by parents and the courts, are creating a compelling need to place safe school planning on the educational agenda.
The courts now are asking school administrators, in light of the increasing levels of serious school crime, “What are you doing differently in 1994 that you were not doing in 1993?” The failure to provide clear and reasonable answers in terms of staff training, crisis planning, crime prevention through environmental design, better communication systems, or enhanced supervision can leave a district in a precarious situation. This article synthesizes the results of more than 500 personal school safety site assessments that have been made across the United States from Florida, Connecticut, California, Washington, Texas, Wisconsin, and many other locations. The suggestions represent the “art of the possible” in safe school planning.
Insuring the tranquillity and safety of our schools requires a major strategic commitment. It involves placing school safety at the top of the educational agenda. School systems around the country are beginning to recognize that developing and implementing a safe school plan is a critical and essential part of this process. South Carolina, in 1992, was the first state to mandate safe school planning and in 1982 the voters of California overwhelmingly passed the Victim’s Bill of Rights, which established school safety as a constitutional right (Article I, Section 28c). In addition, in 1984 the California State Board of Education issued a policy paper that states:
The Board believes that a beginning step toward safer schools and better school discipline and attendance is the development of a comprehensive plan for school safety, discipline and attendance by every public school and district in the state. The plan should be developed as a part of ongoing district and school planning efforts and should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. The State Board of Education intends that this plan be developed cooperatively by parents, students, teachers, administrators, counselors and commonly agencies, and approved by the local school district governing board. The Board also intends for school districts to establish working relationships with law enforcement agencies, service agencies, and parents which will provide safe and orderly schools, improve attendance, and expand services to students and parents.
As exemplified in the California School Board Policy, schools will be increasingly expected to develop school safety plans. A safe schools plan is a continuing, broad-based, comprehensive and systematic process to create and maintain a safe, secure, and welcoming school climate, free of drugs, violence, and fear. This climate would promote the success and development of all children and those professionals who serve them. Creating a safe school plan requires a broad-based school/community team. Leadership for this team could come from the superintendent of schools, the police chief, the presiding juvenile judge, or any other leader from a parent or community group. When the Safe School Planning Team is mobilized, they meet to craft a site-specific safety plan. one approach to safe school planning incorporates the schedule shown in Table 1.
An important part of developing a safety plan is to conduct an initial needs assessment. Some of the relevant questions for a school safety planning team to consider, among others, are shown in Table 2.
As a rough guideline for the planning team, the affirmative answers to the questions in Table 2 can be multiplied by 5 and summed. Scores of 0to 20 indicate that the school does not have a significant school safety problem. If the scores range between 25 to 45, an emerging school safety problem may be present. Scores of 50 to 70 indicate that there is a significant potential for school safety problems and a safe school plan should be given high priority. You are sitting on a ticking time bomb if your score is over 70. Begin working on your safe school plan immediately and get some outside help.
Conducting an assessment of your current situation is a critical first step. In addition to addressing the questions listed in Table 1, a safe school assessment should include at least (a) a school crime analysis, (b) student/staff/community survey, and (c) focus groups. Implementing the latter two assessment activities draws heavily upon the expertise of school psychologists.
A school crime analysis will provide valuable information about the types of criminal and harrassment incidents occurring on campus. The report should reflect the types of crimes, when and where they occurred, who was involved and the action taken, and other data. Crime analysis is extremely important in order to determine the potential connection of one incident to other incidents. For example, at one middle school, an administrator found that nearly every time a fight occurred on campus it involved a certain group of female students who had formed a “dance club.” Upon investigation, the administrators discovered that it was really a new gang. The gang initiation rites required the girls to beat up a certain number of people on campus, vandalize a certain number of teachers” cars, or have sex with a certain number of male students. By having a good crime analysis system, the administrators were able to put a stop to the emerging gang and create a legitimate dance club with a faculty sponsor.
The second phase involves student, staff, and community surveys. Surveys of attitudes are necessary because many crimes are never reported. To rely exclusively on crime data creates significant gaps. A survey also provides an opportunity to evaluate perceptions and feelings that are equally important issues to the safe school planning process. often the perceptions of crime and violence become the realities.
The third and perhaps most critical aspect of the assessment process is to conduct a series of focus groups with students, staff, parents, law enforcement, and community leaders. Talking with students is a particularly wonderful reality check. Students are the recipients of the community systems and environments that affect their daily lives at schools. Their insights are invaluable in identifying the issues to be developed in the strategic safe school planning process.
In addition to developing an initial safety plan, every school should conduct an annual school safety assessment. A school safety assessment is a strategic evaluation and planning tool used to determine the extent of a school safety problem. It also may focus on a much broader or comprehensive area of school safety or school climate. Such an assessment could focus on gangs, weapons in school, drug or alcohol abuse, school yard bullying, site evaluation of facilities including landscape, policies and procedures, compliance with local and state laws, community support, parent attitudes, student attitudes and motivation, or a variety of other areas that assess emerging school climate trends.
A school safety assessment, in broadest terms, is a comprehensive review and evaluation of the entire educational program of a school or school district. These issues are examined to ascertain how they affect school climate, school attendance, personal safety, and overall school security. The safety assessment includes: (a) a review of student discipline problems, policies, procedures, and practices at both the school site and district level; (b) an evaluation of the school safety plan and the planning process; (c) an assessment of the school/law enforcement partnership and the relationship with local community leaders and resources; (d) a review of crime prevention efforts with regard to environmental design; (e) a review of employee recruiting, selection, supervision, and training criteria as it pertains to school safety; (f) an assessment of student activity and extracurricular programs; (g) a review of the crisis response plan; (h) assessment of the educational plan and its support for a positive school climate; and (i) a review of other areas needed to evaluate the district or site.
The assessment is conducted in a systematic and comprehensive way by interviewing selected members of the school community and district personnel at all levels, which include but are not necessarily limited to: students, parents, teachers, school support staff, local law enforcement representatives, probation, mental health, and other youth-serving professionals.
The uniqueness of a safe school plan is that it can include whatever prevention or intervention strategies the local community feels are important. Included in Table 3 are a variety of program options that should be considered.
Although there is no guarantee that a school will ever be completely violence free, it is first and foremost important to make school safety a top agenda item. In addition, several general preventive security measures will help to lessen the chances of violence occurring on campus:
Create a climate of ownership and school pride. Every student and staff member should be made to feel like a key part of the school community. This is accomplished by involving every person in the safe school planning process, including students, parents, teachers, and community leaders. Establish home room areas for safety and students. Encourage school-sponsored groups and clubs to take ownership of specific hallways, display areas, or other locations.
Establish a parents’ center. A parent center should be established on each campus that recruits, coordinates, and encourages parents to participate in the educational process. Possible activities include helping supervise hallways, playgrounds, restrooms, or other trouble spots. Classroom visitation and participation in special events is encouraged. A special training program that outlines expectations and responsibilities for parents in volunteer roles can be particularly helpful
Target troublemakers. A small percentage of young people create most of the school problems. There is a growing trend among schools and juvenile-serving professionals to begin sharing information about the serious misbehavior of juveniles. In Sylmar, California, a junior high student nearly stabbed his teacher to death. The student had a long history of misbehavior, but no one at the school knew it because the juvenile justice system typically treats each juvenile as a first time offender every time an offense is committed. The California state legislature decided to change the way business is done. Consequently, Senate Bill 143 was passed mandating that the principal inform the teacher of every student who has had a background of criminal misbehavior. This action implies that the court will notify the principal whenever a juvenile is adjudicated. House Bill 23 in Texas (passed in 1993) requires local law enforcement officials to verbally notify the superintendent of schools within 24 hours of the arrest or detention of a juvenile. Within 7 days school officials must receive written notification. A similar information-sharing law has been passed in Virginia, and such revisions are being considered in several other states. once troublemakers are targeted, supervision plans can be set in place that can help prevent the youngsters from further victimizing themselves and others.
Make the campus welcoming and safe before students come. School safety leadership begins at the top. There is no question that the best principals spend the majority of their time outside their offices. Staying in tune and in touch cannot be accomplished in a cloistered office. Principals and other school staff will want to begin the day by greeting students at the front door when they first arrive and by being present in the hall during class changes. They will visit classrooms and attend special events.
Establish a vibrant system of extracurricular programs. School children need positive things to do. Without interesting and challenging activities, students may fill the void with negative activities.
Get parents on your side. School administrators cannot create safe campuses alone. They need parent power. Work with parents to convince them of your interest in their child’s success.
Make certain there is an active student component. Students should be actively involved in their own safety and safe planning, including learning conflict resolution techniques. Most importantly, though, keep in touch with students. They are among the best crime prevention advisors. They will tell you about those areas of the campus they avoid and they will make insightful suggestions on school crime prevention strategies.
Integrate into curriculum. Incorporate life skills curricula into the course structure that focus on good decision making, responsible citizenship, and conflict resolution. Young people need to learn how to deal with conflict. School violence is the tangible expression of unresolved conflict. If we can help children identify and implement constructive conflict resolution techniques, our campuses can be made much safer. Schools should establish a curriculum committee to focus on teaching students these important skills. A curriculum that emphasizes courtesy and thoughtfulness will go a long way toward creating a more positive and effective campus life.
Provide adequate adult supervision. Provide adequate adult supervision. Children need continuous responsible supervision. This may include teachers, administrators, parents, a campus supervisor or law enforcement officers. A good ratio of students to adults is 25:1 or less depending upon special needs.
Establish in-service training. Establish an ongoing professional development and in-service training program for campus supervisors. This would include training techniques in classroom management, breaking up a fight, handling disruptive parents and campus intruders, and a variety of other safe school issues.
Implement staff screening process. Implement a thorough record screening and selection process for teachers, staff, and campus volunteers. Crime and violence is often promoted by the quality and preparation of staff responsible for daily supervision. Screening out prior felons and child molesters is essential.
Establish a campus intruder and visitor screening procedure. A school administrator is responsible not only for keeping kids away from trouble, but also for keeping trouble away from kids. Having an effective visitor screening process will accomplish that objective. A school security task force should be established to identify what safety measures should be implemented and how they might be accomplished.
Establish behavior guidelines. Establish clear behavior guidelines, making certain they are clearly communicated, consistently enforced, and fairly applied toward all students. Posting the guidelines in prominent places and working with the supervising staff to consistently enforce them is essential. We tend to get not only what we expect and deserve, but also what we allow.
Establish clear and reasonable dress codes. We tend to act the way we dress. Gang attire, dress styles, or clothing with a disruptive message or disruptive appearance should not be tolerated (i.e., indicate why such clothes pose a real threat of safety to the school and are not merely a reflection of adult disapproval of youth fashion).
Mandate crime reporting and tracking. Creating a safe campus requires continuous tracking and monitoring of school crime problems. Analyzing when, where, why, and who is involved in school crime incidents will provide information about campus locations, individuals, and times that may require enhanced supervision.
Establish a close law enforcement partnership. Include law enforcement officials in your curriculum, supervision, and crisis planning. Some of the most effective school peace officer programs bring the officer in contact with children in the early grades and allow the officer to follow the students through elementary, middle, and high school. School peace officers are able to do some of their best work after 4 to 5 years of knowing the children and the community.
Establish a crisis response plan. Through responsible planning, many potential problems can be avoided. However, there are times when a crisis is unavoidable. There are two types of schools: those that faced a crisis and those that are about to. A good crisis plan focuses on crisis prevention, preparation, management, and resolution. A good crisis plan also will identify resources available through other community agencies.
Provide adequate support and protection for victims. once a crime has been committed, victims need special attention and support. School psychologists may provide this service at school or help coordinate outreach to other community services. This may require more than a single counseling session. It may involve referral to a community service provider or ongoing support by the district.
Closely supervise known juvenile offenders. Provide close supervision, remedial training, and where feasible, require restitution by the juvenile offender. Create a special supervisor program for the repeat offender. This includes in school suspension or a series of alternative schools within the district.
Establish collaborative partnerships. Create a partnership of youth service professionals who can support and augment the schools efforts to minimize school crime and campus disruption. The partnership should include schools, law enforcement, health and human services, courts, probation, prosecutor, department of parks and recreation, parents, and business and community leaders, among others.
Increase safety of school physical design. Promote crime prevention through target hardening and environmental design. Provide maximum supervision in heavy traffic areas. Provide public telephones with dial-free connections to emergency services in strategic locations. Relocate safe activities near typical trouble spots. For instance, consider relocating a psychologist or counselor office next to a corridor or locker bay where problems have been occurring. Conduct ticket sales or concession activities in or near problem areas. Eliminate obstacles, such as trash cans and architectural barriers, that block or inhibit the traffic flow, supervision, and surveillance. Use parabolic/convex mirrors in stairwells and other locations that require improved supervision.
Administrators taking charge. School site administrators must acquire “crime-resistance savvy and take greater responsibility in working with the school board and district to implement site security programs. Students and staff will support thoughtful leaders who have a clear sense of direction and purpose.
Establish school communication network. A state-of-the-art school communication network should be established that links classrooms and school yard supervisors with the front office or security staff, as well as with local law enforcement and fire departments.
Institute regular review programs. School staff should be informed and regularly updated on safety plans through in-service training. The training should include not only the certified staff but also classified staff, including part-time employees and substitute teachers.
Limit access to school grounds. Access points to school grounds should be limited and monitored during the school day. A single visitor entrance should be supervised by a receptionist or security officer. Visitors must sign in at the reception area and wear an identification pass. Delivery entrances used by vendors also should be checked regularly.
As violence and intimidation have become a way of life on many of our nation’s campuses, educators are called upon more to handle disruptive events. often, the only difference between a violent outcome and a peaceful resolution is the application of a few key principles and procedures. The following guidelines are suggested as potential strategies for breaking up fights and disarming a weapon-wielding student, 2 increasingly common school violence incidents. How well we know our students and the parents with whom we work may be the most critical factor in our effectiveness to resolve conflict. People reflect our attitudes and actions. As our own emotions escalate, others tend to emulate what they see. As we deescalate, personal defenses and aggression can be reduced. occasionally, there may be no opportunity to deescalate, but most of the time that option is available.
What can be done to calm a potentially volatile situation? Guidelines for handling just such a situation are based on four overriding strategic principles: (a) Evaluate, (b) Evacuate, (c) Isolate, (d) Negotiate/Mediate. Most fights don’t just happen-emotions build and escalate until the situation explodes. Children and educators need training in conflict resolution and conflict management, and this provides a clear opportunity for school psychologists to be a valuable school safety resource. Some guidelines for handling school yard fights are shown in Table 4.
Handling a weapon-wielding student requires a heightened level of finesse and coordination, not to mention training and fortitude. When the Chancellor of New York City Public Schools first asked school security officers to check students for guns, they said, “No way, that’s dangerous business and we’re not paid enough to do it.” At another urban school system when a security aide was asked to remove a gun from a student, he said, “Not for $4.25 an hour?” These statements reflect the critical need for training, professionalism, and adequate compensation to deal with this kind of assignment.
Safe school planning is a continuous process. It involves much more than a single meeting and a plan relegated to a notebook. The process must be broadly based and involve the entire campus community. These strategies represent only the beginning. School safety must be made a top priority throughout the district.
School psychologists can play a vital role in helping administrators identify top areas of student concerns and needs. School psychologists and counselors are often the first line of support in helping a youngster with a major behavioral problem involving aggression or violence. When a safe and welcoming school climate is created, students will bring to school psychologists, counselors, and teachers a whole new series of personal needs to fulfill. This increased demand for service is a compliment to their effectiveness in responding to young people. The bottom line is thoughtful and caring work leads to heightened levels of service — a wonderful challenge to us all as we work to provide support for the success of all children.
Address correspondence concerning this article to Ronald D. Stephens, National School Safety Center, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA 90263.