School Violence Enters Suburbs
Measures to fight the growing threat are being adopted - gang colors are being banned, metal detectors installed. US EDUCATION AT RISK
LOCKED doors, security patrols, and metal detectors were once confined to urban schools in neglected neighborhoods.
As violence and crime seep beyond the city limits, however, many affluent and middle-class suburban schools are adopting a similar fortress-like mentality.
"The violence in America has come to the suburbs," a Dartmouth, Mass., teacher said following the fatal stabbing of a high school freshman by three other students last week.
"It really gives you a heavy heart," state Education Secretary Richard Riley commented in Boston on Friday.
Since there is no federal statute requiring schools to report violent incidents, the precise levels of violence in suburban schools are unknown.
"Without laws, there's a real tendency for schools not to keep that information, especially in suburban and rural areas," says George Butterfield, deputy director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. "But these areas are not immune to violence."
In a 1992 survey by Xavier University in Cincinnati, 54 percent of suburban school administrators reported rising violence in their schools during the past five years.
"Many suburban areas are in denial about the possibility of violence happening in their schools," Mr. Butterfield says. "But more and more, we find that this is an issue crashing in on administrators. Schools have to change their approach to doing the business of education."
"In some areas, people are saying: `Well, that's happening in the city, but it won't happen here,' " agrees Wayne Doyle, superintendent of Gateway School District in Monroeville, Pa., near Pittsburgh. "Others are being more realistic and realizing that it can happen anywhere."
In response to increasing violence in neighboring districts, Mr. Doyle has provided hand-held metal detectors to his principals. A plainclothes security guard is stationed outside the high school, watching for intruders or troublemakers.
"It was becoming more common for students from another district to come to the school and challenge our students," Doyle says. The security guard "has curtailed that kind of activity."
In suburban Jefferson County School District west of Denver, Superintendent Lew Finch has expelled more students this year than ever before for possession of dangerous weapons. "They're not using them," he says, but knives and handguns are becoming everyday school supplies for a growing number of students.
The Department of Justice estimates that 100,000 students carry a gun to school every day.
"A lot of it is kids just bringing weapons as a dare or an attention-getting device," Mr. Finch says.
In urban areas, weapons are more likely to be brought to school for survival than for show-and-tell.
"More often than not, when we catch a kid with a gun in our schools, they'll tell us they carry it for protection," says Joseph Fernandez, chancellor of the New York City school system, in Boston Saturday to speak at an education conference.
Many schools are increasing their cooperation with local police. As gang activity begins to infiltrate the suburban areas, educators are learning lessons about gang colors, insignia, and other signs of trouble.
"We're talking with our staff about what the colors mean," Finch says. "And police come in to identify any [gang] symbols when we find graffiti in our restrooms."
Schools are banning certain colors or baseball caps known to represent gang alliances. In San Diego, high schools removed student lockers, leaving students nowhere to hide weapons or drugs.
Some schools are responding to the encroaching threat of violence by introducing anti-violence or conflict-resolution programs.
Michael Cahill, a state representative from Beverly, Mass., has filed legislation calling for mandatory violence-prevention education in all Massachusetts schools.
"We're all trying to come up with solutions like metal detection, magnetic door locks, safety offices in the schools," Mr. Fernandez says. "That's short term. We've got to get at the root problem and to do that we need more conflict-resolution programs. We have to get our students to understand that they can't take out their frustrations through violence."
Introducing preventive measures into schools is the key, Butterfield says. "Much of the time, especially in suburbia, it's a response to an incident. They try to handle that incident, calm down the press and parents, and then it's off the agenda until there's another incident."
Mediation or negotiation programs teach students how to deal with anger or conflict without resorting to violence.
The Harvard Negotiation Project in Cambridge, Mass., teaches high school students how to defuse emotions and find nonviolent solutions to disagreements.
"Most students don't have models for effective conflict resolution," says Douglas Stone, the project's associate director. Although Mr. Stone acknowledges that conflict-management programs and his negotiation curriculum are not a panacea, "this is a piece of the puzzle," he says.
"Many of the stabbings and shootings [in schools] start with somebody bumping somebody else in the hallway - or just a perceived disrespect," Butterfield says. "Students out there have a wide belief that if someone has shown you disrespect, just about the only way to deal with that shame is to fight, to be aggressive. Unless they learn some alternatives to that kind of approach, it's just going to continue to escalate."
Deborah Meier, principal of Central Park East Secondary School in New York, views relationships between adults and children as more powerful than any anti-violence curriculum. "Violence is a symptom of cynicism, of kids not thinking that they have a future," she says. "We blame kids for a culture that we're abandoning them to."
The most important impact a school can have on students is through its own climate and culture, Ms. Meier says. But it's a challenge to counteract the violent media images that bombard students daily.
Schools are powerless to turn the situation around on their own, Fernandez says. "There has to be the political will to get these guns off the streets."
For many students, school remains a calming influence. "I'm sorry to say but in increasing numbers the school is safer than a student's own home," Finch says. "The school is a refuge for thousands of kids - even in the inner city. It's when they leave the school that they immediately enter the dangerous zone."