What To Look For, How To Help
Is my child really safe at school? Does a school need metal detectors at the doors and police patrolling the hallways to be secure? How can I tell if my child or his friends are at risk of committing violence--and what should I do if I see warning signs?
More and more, parents are wrestling with these questions. While the likelihood of a child being gunned down in class is very small--less than one percent of murdered children are killed on school property, according to the National Center on Education Statistics--safety is a critical issue in most schools.
A recent government survey found that 47 percent of schools reported problems with fighting, physical attacks without a weapon and similar problems. Another 10 percent of schools reported serious crimes such as sexual assault, robbery or attacks with a weapon. Only 43 percent of schools said they had no problem with crime and safety.
What should schools do?
Get-tough solutions such as metal detectors, police patrols and locker checks may make a school appear safer, and in some instances parents and school staff may decide such measures are needed. But experts say strategies that promote mutual respect among students, a focus on academics and methods of resolving conflict peacefully are better ways to deter violence.
One way some schools solve conflict is through peer courts, where students "judge" disputes between classmates and decide on discipline.
Safe schools typically have:
- A strong discipline policy and frequent discussions about safety by school staff.
- Supervised after-school activities to keep children and teens occupied.
- Ties to community organizations that can provide counseling and mentoring to troubled children and families.
- Ways to involve parents as much as possible; for instance, having parents patrol halls and monitor cafeterias.
- A system to allow students to share their concerns if they think a classmate may become violent. Some schools have anonymous telephone "hotlines" for students to report potential problems.
What can parents do?
Parents can help create safer schools. Here are some tips from Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, a U.S. Department of Education publication that can be printed online.
- Discuss the school's discipline policy with your child and make sure he or she knows you support the rules.
- Help your child find ways to handle anger without physically hurting others.
- Talk with other parents about forming a team to ensure school safety, or start a school-based group focused on violence prevention.
- Be as active as possible in your child's school. Volunteer to help monitor and supervise before- and after-school activities.
- Listen to your child if he or she shares concerns about a friend who may be showing troubling behavior. Share the information with a teacher, principal or other school professional.
Keeping Schools Safe provides links to violence-prevention resources and organizations.
The National School Safety Center has reports available online, including a School Safety Update and the report Working Together To Create Safe Schools. There's no foolproof way to identify a student who will commit violence, but here are some of the major risk factors. Consult school authorities if a child you know exhibits these signs:
- Frequent uncontrolled, angry outbursts
- Making violent threats when angry
- Serious discipline problems or bringing weapons to school
- Few or no close friends
- Cruelty to animals
- Little or no supervision and caring from a parent or other adult.
- History of being bullied or victimized
- Making detailed plans or announcing threats to harm others
- Significant vandalism or property damage
- Drug and/or alcohol abuse
For more information, check the National School Safety Center and the American Psychological Association.
If you are concerned about your child's safety, here are some questions to ask your school administrators:
- Is the front door secure? Are all other doors locked?
- Are there security personnel and/or off-duty police officers on duty?
- Are there security precautions, such as cameras, metal detectors, x-rays or wands?
- What procedures are followed for a child who doesn't show up to class?
- What procedures are followed when a child is found missing from school?
- Are there crises plans in place to deal with security emergencies?
- What objects are not allowed in school?
- Is there a Uniform Disciplinary Code? How and when is it used?
- What intervention programs are offered for problem children?
Special thanks to Dr. Charles Kyle, principal at Stowe Public School in Chicago, for his contribution to this list.