There was only one reason Karen Ankerstar moved her family from Colorado to Florida three years ago and eventually enrolled her 15-year-old son in a private high school in Sarasota.

“There were guns in the junior highs” in Colorado, Ankerstar said, recalling an incident in which a group of teen-agers were caught with weapons near her son Tristan’s public middle school.

“Physical safety was my main concern,” she said.

Ankerstar is one of an increasing number of parents who say safety is a top reason they chose private, religious, or independent schools instead of public schools for their kids.

The private schools generally have smaller student bodies and lower student-to-teacher ratios, and that makes it easier for educators to spot the warning signs of trouble earlier, teachers and parents say.

Moreover, private schools don’t have to put up with disruptive or violent behavior from students.

“We have the power to expel; we have the power to remove [troublemakers] from our system,” said David Couchman, head of the computer science department at Tampa Preparatory School in Florida, where he has taught for 16 years. “Everybody is reasonably well-behaved.”

Carl Owenby, who has three children—grades one, five, and nine—at Maclay School, a private preparatory school in Tallahassee, said he’s confident his children are safe, particularly in a school that includes kindergarten through 12th grade. That longevity allows educators to know the children’s backgrounds and families, making it easier to identify problems before they occur, he said.

“I’m confident that my children are in a safe, loving environment,” he said. “It’s really truly like a family here.”

Though statistics do not exist yet to support such a theory, a growing number of public school educators are concerned that recent, well-publicized acts of violence in the nation’s schools are prompting more and more parents to pull their children from public schools and either enroll them in private schools or home-school them.

A recent survey by the National Association of Independent Schools showed that adults surveyed named “safe” as the second most important adjective to describe private schools, said Margaret Goldsboro, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based organization.

She said security concerns were second only to the perception that private schools have a more structured curriculum and atmosphere. In a similar survey in 1991, safety was never mentioned.

“It’s becoming more prevalent in the minds of parents as they’re making decisions for their children,” Goldsboro said.

Still, private schools are by no means insulated from threats or acts of violence.

In September, bomb-sniffing dogs were called to search the halls of an Evangelical Christian school in West Palm Beach, Fla., after two threats were found on the school’s web page, including one promising “a bloody massacre.” Two students later admitted to posting the threats.

When a gasoline bomb was found at the Catholic middle school in Fort Lauderdale three years ago, it changed teacher Susan Clarke’s outlook on school security forever. Two 14-year-olds students at St. Coleman Catholic School had built the bomb with information gleaned from school resources and from the internet.

The boys rigged the bomb to a light switch to go off in the classroom of a science teacher they disliked. Thankfully, the plan was discovered before any damage could be done.

“I’m not safe anywhere,” said Clarke, 51, who had taught at a public school in north Florida before moving to the South Florida religious school.

Karen Kleinz, associate director of the National School Public Relations Association, said all schools face challenges in the aftermath of Columbine and other high-profile shootings—but public schools face the added challenge of overcoming a public perception that they are somehow less safe than their private school counterparts.

School districts should take a proactive approach to alleviating the general anxiety being felt by students and parents, Kleinz recommended.

For example, soon after the Columbine tragedy, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia sent out a joint news release from the superintendent and the chief of police outlining the safety precautions they were taking and reaffirming the district’s commitment to prosecuting pranks to the fullest extent of the law.

Ray Willis, director of public information for the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev., scheduled a news conference after Columbine in which he presented a list of talking points he had prepared under the heading, “Perspective on School Violence.”

Among the points that Willis made to the community:

• The death of even a single student as a result of school violence is unacceptable and shouldn’t occur;

• Incidences in schools are relatively few in number when compared to what’s happening in communities outside of schools; and

• Of the more than 20 million middle and high school students in the U.S., fewer than 40 students were killed while at school last year.

Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) can help tell the story that public schools are safer than parents might fear, Kleinz added.

For example, according to NCES’s March 1998 report, “Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools,” 90 percent of public schools reported no incidents of violent crime in 1996-97—and 43 percent of these reported no crimes of any kind.

And ED’s latest “Annual Report on School Safety” shows that overall school crime rates are declining, despite heightened public attention following the surge in multiple homicides in schools (see FYI, page 8). n

Links:

National Association of Independent Schools, 1620 L Street NW, Washington, DC 20036-5605; phone (202) 973-9700, fax (202) 973-9790, web http://www.nais.org.

National School Public Relations Association, 15948 Derwood Road, Rockville, MD 20855; phone (301) 519-0496, eMail nspra@nspra.org, web http://www.nspra.org.

National Center for Education Statistics, 555 New Jersey Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20208-5574; phone (202) 219-1828, web http://www.nces.ed.gov.