Schools are still the safest place for kids to be, but it didn’t much seem that way during the most recent rash of school violence and threats of violence that began with the tragic slaying of two students in Santa Anna High School in Santee, Calif.
In the single week following the Santee shootings, incidents involving students and guns were reported from coast to coast. Three incidents took place in Pennsylvania, including at a parochial school where a 14-year-old girl was charged with attempted homicide after allegedly shooting a classmate in the shoulder. There were 16 incidents in California in addition to Santee, two incidents in Georgia, one in Iowa, two in Florida, one each in Washington state and Wisconsin, three in Arizona, and one in New Jersey.
This was during just one week.
Yet according to a joint report from the U.S. Justice Department and Department of Education (ED), only 1 percent of child homicides take place in or near schools. The number of school deaths has declined since the 1992-93 school year, it was reported. Since 1993, the number of arrests per 100,000 children ages 10 to 17 for violent crimes has declined 20 percent.
Technology plays a role on both sides of issue. On the dark side, at least two web sites present memorial tributes to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the students who killed at Columbine High School. One site urges visitors to support the “Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold ribbon campaign.” It idolizes them as “our fallen heroes” willing to risk their own lives “for the sake of proving a point.”
On the positive side, schools are experimenting with tech-based remedies. Public schools in Newark, N.J., for instance, are installing a network of cameras to monitor corridors, stairwells, cafeterias, and gyms. The district plans to eventually wire all its high schools to a secure internet site. Other districts are using smart cards and similar devices to control access to schools and classrooms. But no responsible observer contends technology is a panacea.
Human intervention still is key. Many schools are bringing in specially trained police officers. ED has earmarked some $500 million for anti-violence programs in schools, ranging from conflict-resolution training to programs encouraging students to report potential danger.
Some proposed solutions are simply chilling. Following the killings in Santee, Texas state Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp (R) has introduced legislation to let school principals and superintendents carry guns at rural schools. The bill would apply only to officials with “concealed-handgun” licenses in counties with fewer than 20,000 people. School officials not already licensed would have to undergo training and tests of their proficiency in the handling of a gun and in conflict resolution. Background checks also would be conducted. Safety and school experts say urban districts with their metal detectors, security cameras, and police officers are more prepared to prevent in-school violence, because those districts have been dealing with it for decades.
While urban school systems have been making progress, the reaction to gun violence among suburban and rural districts has lagged, said Bernard James, legal counsel for the National School Safety Center, based in Westlake Village, Calif.
Joanne McDaniel, acting director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C., said some suburban and rural districts continue to cling to an outdated mentality: “It can’t happen here.”
Security cameras and metal detectors are insufficient, according to Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers in Boynton Beach, Fla.
“We can bring in all the metal detectors and cameras in the world,” Lavarello said. “We can do that endlessly and not even make a dent without addressing the real need. …We have to create an environment where children feel they can come to adults.”
In Santee, friends of the suspect, Charles Andrew “Andy” Williams, have said the youth told them he planned to open fire inside Santana High School. But, they said, they thought he was joking and didn’t alert police.
Local school leaders should determine what will work best in their specific circumstances. We should avoid extremes like the “pistol-packing principals” idea. But sadly, it’s well past time to acknowledge that, wherever we are, “It can happen here.” And we must act accordingly.