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Are Our Children Safe In School?

The shots that killed 15 people April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School were heard throughout the nation -- but the changes prompted by that tragedy were still unable to prevent another school killing. On February 29, 2000, a first-grader shot and killed a classmate in a Michigan elementary school. What have we learned from the Columbine tragedy? What do we still need to do? Are our children safe in school? Included: Experts' suggestions to prevent school violence!

In Flint, Michigan, six-year-old Kayla Rolland had a playground scuffle with one of her classmates. The next day, that classmate took a gun to school, hidden in his pants. While the other students were lining up in the hallway for morning recess, Kayla's classmate shot her in the neck with the one bullet that was in the gun. She died.

Last April 20 started like any other school day, but it ended like no other for people at Columbine High. Sunshine warmed Littleton, Colorado, as students readied for the end of the school year and senior graduation. Before noon, two male students wearing trench coats had set off homemade bombs and walked through the school in a murderous rampage. One teacher and 14 students died.

The countless improvements in school security prompted by last year's Littleton tragedy were still unable to prevent Kayla's murder in Flint. Although there is a downward trend in the number of violent school incidents and students who take guns to school, school security continues to be a concern as it has been for the past decade.

However, it is a mistake to believe that security hardware alone can prevent more school shootings, said Dr. Scott Poland, the newly elected president of the National Association of School Psychologists and director of psychological services for Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas. Poland, who led three crisis teams following school shootings last year, including the one at Columbine High School, warns school officials that additional changes are necessary to prevent more violence.

Many schools missed the chance to make sure the people killed at Columbine High did not die in vain, Poland told Education World. "We've missed a very teachable moment," he said. "Teachers should have put their desks in a circle and talked about what students could do to make their school safer."

Although many school districts spent millions of dollars on security hardware, many made the decision to invest in hardware in isolation and without student input, Poland added. "They [students] are the absolute keys to the process."

"We need to have regular classroom units on [violence] from elementary school all the way through," Poland said. "I believe that what is done in an individual classroom is the key. Teachers need to model appropriate and respectful behavior toward everyone and stop harassment when they see it and be in the hallways and all places in the school where it happens. You have to talk about it every day and with every student."


After the Columbine tragedy, hundreds of bomb threats occurred at schools throughout the nation. Many principals told their students they had caught the person who had made the threat and to get back to work, Poland said. More missed opportunities for discussion, he added.

Students must learn to recognize the serious danger of guns, Poland emphasized. They must report students with guns immediately to an adult. He discovered after talking to students about shootings that occurred in their schools that, in almost every case of a suicide or school violence, someone knew before it happened. "Students don't want to be snitches," he said, even when if they understand the gun could be aimed at them.

"An encouraging sign is that students in many locations have come forward and foiled plot to commit violence in their schools. Some of these stories have even been in the news, which is good," Poland said. "It personally embarrasses me that I live in a country where a six-year-old or seven-year-old can bring a gun to school," he continued. "We must teach even little kids that guns are dangerous and that if someone gets out a gun, run! Tell an adult!"


Another part of the solution is to personalize large high schools, Poland recommended. One component of this complex problem is that most high schools are too large to create a personal environment. School districts build large high schools or consolidate schools to create even larger schools. Experts now say that small high schools, with about 600 students, are much better for students. "I think we have stopped making decisions that are good for kids and I find that educators don't think about the big picture," Poland commented. "I do not see it as a national priority as it should be."

The solution in those large high schools is to personalize them by having wings or teams with groups of students who have the same teachers, Poland suggested. Schools should make it their goal to increase extra-curricular participation by 50 percent within the year, to improve the personalization of the school.


Poland said schools must hold students accountable for their behavior, including threatening violence or writing hate graffiti on school property. The national associations for principals of elementary and secondary schools agree and have endorsed a zero-tolerance policy.

Zero-tolerance policies have been around since the 1980s, when states began to adopt zero-tolerance laws pertaining to illegal drug use. In 1994, the Safe- and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act was adopted. The federal government funds state and local efforts to reduce school violence. Schools that accept such funding must expel students who take weapons or drugs to school, explained Dr. Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

"Zero-tolerance takes the discretion out of the hands of the principal, and it is not discriminatory," Tirozzi said. "Zero-tolerance is a non-discriminatory act across the board."

"The secret to a good policy is to clearly articulate the expectations of student behavior and what the violations are and what the penalties are," Tirozzi said. "I do think everyone is on full alert [since Columbine]," he told Education World. At a recent national convention of the NASSP, he had the sense that schools across the country have taken a number of steps to institute tougher rules and more security measures.

This zero-tolerance policy lets teachers focus on teaching instead of law enforcement, said Dr. Pam Riley, executive director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence. Violent altercations belong in the district attorneys' offices, she added.

"Schools reflect what happens in communities -- [their] guns, drugs and violence," Riley told Education World. "Administrators are reacting to that. If something goes wrong, they must treat it like a serious issue." Educators must use also common sense and have fair procedures in place, Riley advised.

"We do need to have limits. School officials must have the ability to have consequences for these violations, but there must be due process and respect for individual rights of children," Riley said. The zero-tolerance policy is just one component of the many changes made to improve school security since the Columbine High tragedy.


"Columbine is referred to as the 'Pearl Harbor' of school violence," added Riley. Although there had been other school shootings, the Columbine shootings got the nation's attention. The Center for the Prevention of School Violence in North Carolina had more than 600 requests for media interviews, Riley said. The center had as many requests for presentations following the tragedy as it usually received for an entire year.

"After the Columbine tragedy there was a more concerted effort to show a physical security presence," explained Riley. Added security measures included metal detectors, surveillance cameras, fences around school property, and more lighting in stairwells and areas outside the school. Those measures were important because they helped make parents and students feel safer, she said. Many schools also added either professional security guards or a police presence.

Requirements that students wear uniforms and use mesh (see-through) book bags were among common changes. School uniforms were especially recommended in schools in which gangs operated, which eliminated gang colors or emblems on clothing.

School violence has not only affected changes in school security and added anti-violence curriculum but also changed people's perception of schools. "Schools had traditionally been safe havens," said Timothy Neville, Kennedy Middle School principal in Enfield, Connecticut. "I think things are different now because we had kids that were scared." "There has always been some fighting in schools," he continued. "But there is a big difference between two kids duking it out and kids getting blown-up and shot."

Experts Suggest Ways to Prevent School Violence

Drs. Scott Poland, Gerald Tirozzi, and Pam Riley throw out some ideas.

  • Hold community and student discussions. Before investing in physical security measures, include students and members of the community in discussions. Use student input to guide security hardware choices. Students will know best where those security cameras belong!
  • Lead by example. Be a role model. Stop bullying or harassment wherever it happens -- in hallways or in classrooms. Let your respect for students and colleagues show!
  • Teach students to tell adults about weapons in school. Students don't want to be snitches, but they must learn that guns can kill. Teach kids to tell an adult about guns in school immediately.
  • Support zero-tolerance. Zero-tolerance policies can work when students and parents understand schools' codes for student behavior and the consequences for violations.
  • Personalize large high schools. Wings or teams of certain groups of students should have the same teachers. Set a goal to increase student participation in extra-curricular activities by 50 percent within the year.
  • Implement anti-violence curriculums. Administrators can get more information about anti-violence programs. Following are three of many such programs:
    1. Second Step, from Committee for Children, 172 20th Avenue, Seattle, WA. 98122. Phone: (800) 634-4449.
    2. Violence Prevention Curriculum for Adolescence, from the Education Development Center, 55 Chapel St. Newton, MA 02160.
    3. Empower Your Students to Prevent Violence, Sopris West, 4093 Specialty Place, Longmont, CO 80504. Phone: (800) 547-6747.


Article by Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
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Updated 12/16/2012