More than high-tech measures such as metal detectors or security cameras, the key to halting school violence is effective communication, school safety specialists said at a White House-led summit on Oct. 10.
President Bush called experts together after three deadly shootings at schools in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Pennsylvania within a week. In panel discussions led by members of Bush’s Cabinet, speakers said the best response is basic: Get parents, school leaders, students, and police to work together.
“Our first line of prevention is really having good intelligence,” said Delbert Elliott, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence in Boulder, Colo. He said schools should encourage kids to speak up when they hear classmates boasting of violent plans. The speakers sounded the same themes–schools get safer when they take bullying seriously, practice their crisis plans, and talk to parents about what’s happening with their kids.
“The communication link is very important,” said George Sugai, a University of Connecticut education professor. “Parents are not going to engage the schools if they have to walk through a metal detector, if they have to go through steps to access the teachers.”
The lack of magic-bullet solutions was not surprising. School safety experts have said for years that changing school culture is the best way to halt violence, although it’s hard to do. The administration, compelled to respond to another recent spate of school violence, said a public sharing of ideas would help because the nation is suddenly focused on school safety.
First Lady Laura Bush, speaking at the event in the Maryland suburbs, said school children need to know that grown-ups are protecting them.
“I urge all adults across the country to take their responsibility to children–their own children, and their community’s children–seriously,” she said.
Opening the conference earlier, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings called on schools to practice crisis-response plans. She and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales led morning panels.
“All of us who are parents know it’s frightening,” she said of the recent shootings, one of which took place at a one-room schoolhouse in the Amish country of Pennsylvania. Held four weeks before the midterm elections, the event allowed Bush to return to the politically safe issue of education and child safety. But the federal role in making schools safer is limited, because education remains mainly a local matter.
Fred Wegener, the Park County, Colo., sheriff, described responding in late September, when a man held several girls hostage at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo., before killing one and himself.
The school had just practiced an emergency lockdown in August. Students said after the shooting that they had seen the intruder, but assumed he was the parent of a classmate. “I still think we had a safe school,” Wegener said. “I think it is just one of those times when an individual was able to get in.”
His story drew the room silent. “We’re not supposed to lose our kids at school,” he said. Despite the death of 16-year-old Emily Keyes, things could have been worse, authorities said in the wake of that shooting.
“Basically, the tragedy of Columbine taught law enforcement and educators how to avoid future tragedies,” Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said in the days following the shooting. “In a couple of significant ways, the tragedy of Columbine may have helped prevent an even worse tragedy [here].”
Besides reviewing over the summer what to do in case of a crisis, the school’s emergency plan also was designed using concepts learned from the Columbine attacks, which helped authorities keep the gunman in one room.
Ever since Columbine, school officials have been taught to write emergency-response plans and practice them, to lock down schools and evacuate when it appears safe. That seemed to work well in Bailey, as hundreds of students were whisked to safety.
Law-enforcement officers who once were taught to set up a perimeter and wait for SWAT teams to show up are now trained in “active shooter” programs that call for the first officers on the scene to enter the building and work as quickly as possible to locate the gunman.
“That’s why we were able to isolate it to just one room and get everybody else out,” Wegener said. “Still, you can’t prepare for something like this. You do the best you can.” About 300 people attended the school-safety summit, held at the National 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase, Md.
“Bringing people together to talk about what’s working–that can’t hurt,” said William Lassiter, manager of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C. “I think schools have gotten back into a comfort zone again,” Lassiter said. “I’m not saying we should put barbed wire up around schools or take other drastic measures. What we really need to look at is basic safety steps you would take at your own house.” Lassiter also questioned the Bush administration’s attempt to cut $347 million in school-safety grants for states this year. Bush’s budget says the program is ineffective. The White House says that beyond those state grants, the government spends larger amounts on successful school safety programs through its education, justice, and health agencies.