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Parents patrol schools to improve safety

When students return to Columbine High today, they'll see familiar faces: local adults.

When students return to class today at the site of the deadliest school shooting in US history, officials hope to greet them with an unprecedented display of physical and emotional safety: a human chain of adults surrounding the entire front of the school.

Parents and community members also will be walking the hallways of Columbine High, acting as monitors.

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Their presence is symbolic of a growing movement to involve parents more in patrolling the nation's schools.

While parents have long helped out in the classroom - and even in some hallway monitoring - many are now focusing on safety issues in the wake of an unprecedented period of mass shootings.

To be sure, districts across the country, including here, are pursing a host of strategies to curb school violence, from the installation of metal detectors to the use of surveillance cameras to requiring students to show IDs.

But many community groups believe that the presence of familiar adults is one of the best ways to calm students and help spot early signs of trouble.

Yet their presence does raise enduring questions: Are parents adequately trained to deal with any wayward act that arises? Will there be enough volunteers to walk the hallways once school violence fades from the headlines?

"As each incident has happened, parents' concerns have escalated," says Patty Yoxall of the National PTA in Chicago, one of the groups encouraging more parental involvement.

While no one knows how many parent patrols exist, experts say the number has jumped in the past two years. For example:

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*A parent patrol group in Reno, Nev., has grown from three members to 200 since 1996. Interest in the activity grew after the 1998 school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark. Adults now patrol at least 24 elementary schools.

*Parents wearing maroon jackets and orange vests roam the halls of North Career Metropolitan High School in a tough section of Chicago, watching for everything from student smoking to graffiti spraying.

*Jefferson County schools, which includes Columbine, is considering adult volunteers districtwide to enforce conduct codes.

Advocates see a variety of benefits in the greater community involvement. At Columbine, for instance, one reason for the human chain is to protect students from "obtrusive" reporters.

But participants also believe they will add a physical and psychological boost to students by providing an extra set of eyes and emotional comfort.

In Wilmington, N.C., one mother who is white says the fact that she patrolled with a black parent sent a subtle message of racial harmony to students.

Tannis Nelson says that North Carolina parents did not handle any high-profile incidents, but smoothed the rough edges of campus life by busting kids for smoking in the bathroom or staring at them when they swore.

In the Reno area, Valerie Franklin says a man who saw a parent patrol member sped off after trying to abduct a girl. His license-plate number was taken down and forwarded to authorities.

Experts, however, are unaware of studies that definitively illustrate the benefits of such patrols, at least when it comes to safety.

While interviews indicate few problems with the patrols, one fear is overzealous parents who may try to take the law into their own hands or discipline students too much. Ms. Nelson says her group was warned that one parent who signed up for patrol was too confrontational with students at another school. The parent was paired with someone else.

Nelson and others advocate training. A bit of common sense also helps.

"You have to understand what is a violent push and what is a playful push," says Nelson, who founded Wilmington's PAVE (Parents and Partners Against Violence Everywhere).

Ms. Yoxall, with the national PTA, says parent patrols stretch back at least 20 years. More traditional arrangements have had parents assist in activities such as arts and crafts. But newspaper headlines suggest safety patrols started gaining popularity around 1995.

In Detroit, where patrols continue, a father started one program after his teenage son was killed outside a high school.

Tucson, Ariz., has had parent patrols for eight years, but interest waxes and wanes. Indeed, parents say it's often difficult to maintain patrol membership.

In North Carolina, Nelson says PAVE started out with more than 30 members. After last school year, the number was about 20.

Participation has been high so far in Littleton. When Columbine students finished out the last school year at nearby Chatfield High School, parents were on hand. Mindy Slater sat at side doors that had been locked to increase safety. It might get boring, Ms. Slater says, but she brought along needlepoint.

Columbine drama and English teacher Sue Caruthers welcomed the patrols. She said they added a sense of safety and freed her up to meet with students when she would have otherwise had to be a hall monitor. "I look at them as colleagues," Caruthers says.

Indeed, the benefits of parent patrols do go beyond safety. Some students may not have a parent active in their life. "Youngsters feel there are adults who care about them," says Pam Riley of the Center for Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C.

Still, experts caution that adding security can only do so much. The campus atmosphere must also change to reduce bullying. Columbine is implementing mentor programs for new students and tolerance programs directed at athletes and coaches.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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