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Dismantling the Devil's Workshop
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School-Associated Violent Deaths in the United States, 1994-1999, a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education and Justice, concluded that "school-associated violent deaths remain rare events."

The report, however, conveys a false sense of security; school-related violent deaths may be "rare," but school-related violence is all too common.

Last week, in Springfield, Massachusetts, a student stabbed a school counselor to death in an argument over a hooded sweatshirt. Last month, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a planned school massacre was averted when one of the conspirators confided in a trusted teacher.

According to Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2001, a report compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES),

"In 1999, students ages 12 through 18 were victims of about 2.5 million total crimes at school. In that same year, these students were victims of about 186,000 serious violent crimes at school (that is, rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault). There were also 47 school-associated violent deaths in the United States between July 1, 1998, and June 30, 1999, including 38 homicides."

The same report, released in October, revealed that,

"Over the 5-year period from 1995 through 1999, teachers were the victims of approximately 1,708,000 nonfatal crimes at school, including 1,073,000 thefts and 635,000 violent crimes (rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault). On average, this translates into 342,000 nonfatal crimes per year, or 79 crimes per 1,000 teachers per year. Among the violent crimes against teachers during this 5-year period, there were about 69,000 serious violent crimes, including rape or sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault. On average, this translates into 14,000 serious violent crimes per year."

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In today's StarrPoints, columnist Linda Starr suggests ways to make schools safer for students and teachers. What do you think? Are metal detectors and zero-tolerance policies doing the job? Share your reflections on a StarrPoints message board.

Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for more than a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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In the past several years, school districts across the country have taken extraordinary measures to reduce the incidences of school-related violence. "Violence And Schools: Separating Myth From Fact," an article from the National Education Association Health Information Network, states that:
  • 94 percent of schools have zero tolerance policies for firearms and 91 percent have zero tolerance policies for weapons other than firearms.
  • 96 percent require visitors to sign in before entering school buildings.
  • 80 percent prohibit students from leaving school grounds during the day.
  • 53 percent control access to school buildings and 24 percent control access to school grounds.
  • 4 percent perform random metal detector checks and 1 percent perform daily metal detector checks.
  • 22 percent have some degree of police presence on school grounds.

Although those efforts have reduced the rate of student-to-student violence somewhat, the percentage of students who are victims of some type of school violence each year still stands at between 7 and 10 percent. And, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the rate of violence and threats of violence against teachers has actually increased over the past several years.

What are we doing wrong?

Presented with a growing number of stressed, angry, out-of-control students, we're responding by attempting to take away their weapons; we're doing very little, however, to help them deal, in practical ways, with the emotional upheaval that makes those weapons appealing.

What can we do differently?

We can make stress and anger management an integral part of the health curriculum at all grade levels, beginning in kindergarten. Lecturing students on good character and exhorting them against bullying isn't the answer. Students need to learn specific techniques for dealing with their emotions.

We can require that all students attend daily physical education classes. According to Physical Activity and Health, a 1996 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, physical activity "reduces stress, anxiety and feelings of depression, promotes social interaction, and contributes to social integration." Yet, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) reports that one in four students in grades K-12 does not attend physical education classes and that "the vast majority of high school students have physical education for only one year between 9th and 12th grades."

We can provide all students with the opportunity to participate in at least one after-school sports program a year and we can strongly encourage all students to participate -- regardless of skill level or academic standing. In many communities, out-of-school youth sports programs are available only for students in elementary and middle school, while high school sports programs are often open only to those who are good enough to "make the team." According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), fewer than half of the 16 million high school students in this country participate in school sports. I wonder how many of those who do participate engage in violent behavior at school?

We can require that all students -- particularly those with marginal social skills -- participate in some type of ongoing community service project each year. Students can become involved in tutoring or peer counseling, prepare meals for local food kitchens, coach youth sports, join community clean-up and fix-up projects... There really is a program for every student.

We can sponsor career awareness fairs and provide career counseling directed specifically to students who are not planning to go on to college. Many students, even very bright students, are unaware of the number and variety of jobs available. We have to offer all students a clear vision of a successful future.

School systems can't eliminate all the social, emotional, and academic stressors that affect students. Educators can't be expected to identify all those students who will explode under that pressure. We can, however, equip our students with alternate methods of coping with their emotions, provide them with opportunities to express overwhelming emotions in constructive ways, and limit their opportunities to engage in destructive behavior. We can keep them busy, make sure they're physically active, and get them involved in their own lives and in the lives of others.

Too expensive, you say? In 1999, 186,000 middle and high school students and 14,000 teachers were the victims of violent crimes at school. Compare the cost.