Schools On The Alert

It has been only a few months, but life has changed radically at Permian High in Odessa, Texas. Last May, when the dismissal bell rang out the old academic year, students were Jane and John Anonymous, and the closest thing to surveillance was a couple of security guards passing through the hallways. Last week, when students returned for the new year, they stepped into the new age of high-tech school safety. Every student is now required to wear a computer-coded ID badge. Seventeen surveillance cameras monitor the parking lot and school entrance. And "black boxes," some (no one knows which) containing cameras with audiotape, had been installed in some classrooms by engineers from Sandia National Laboratories, which designs security systems for the U.S. Mint and FBI. Permian, which has 2,100 students, isn't an especially dangerous campus. Still, "we're never satisfied," says principal Brian Rosson. "We're taking proactive steps to make this as safe a place as it can be." But can any measure guarantee safety? That is the question plaguing administrators as school doors open across the country. Overall, school violence has declined this decade. But the mantra "It can't happen here" was buried once and for all with Columbine's young victims. The recent school shootings have forced a growing number of officials to take sometimes desperate measures to assure parents, teachers and students that something is being done to deter violence--even if there is no consensus on the programs' effectiveness. The range of strategies is enormous--from installing metal detectors for guns to training school personnel to identify alienation and hostility before they spin out of control. "There's been a shift from general security to crisis management," says Pete Blauvelt, head of the National Association of School Safety. "The recent shootings have kicked the anxiety meter up 50 or 60 notches."

In their effort to prevent disaster, some schools are adopting a near-militaristic approach. Fire drills are mere child's play compared with student rehearsals for armed intruders. "They know if I come on the P.A. and say 'we're in a lockdown situation'... to clear the hallways, get away from the windows and get down on the floor," says Sharon Cross, principal of Schaumburg High in suburban Chicago, which instituted the drills last winter. "It means someone's life is in danger." The kids aren't the only ones getting ready. Local SWAT teams case the three-story building in the evening and on weekends, uncovering every last nook and cranny. Could a student hide here? Could a gunman flee there? In Pittsburgh, SWAT teams took aim in the hallways of Brashear High last week, staging a mock emergency. Other schools are installing telephones and even panic buttons in classrooms. Many are hiring security officers, some armed, to monitor the comings and goings of students between classes.

City schools, like those in Los Angeles, have had metal detectors for years. But schools well outside urban terrain are now buying the machines, too--at $2,500 apiece. At Garrett Metal Detectors in Garland, Texas, school orders have quadrupled since April, says Jim Dobrei, director of sales and marketing: "When Columbine hit, it threw our production into turmoil." But the detectors are still far from routine. Evanston Township High outside Chicago considered them, but decided they'd be too intrusive. It opted instead for surveillance equipment. The four-story building is now being equipped with 500 video cam- eras in 47 stairwells and 81 exterior doors. The cost: $1 million. "Some people think we're doing this to spy on them," says Kathy Miehls, an Evanston administrator. "But you don't spend that kind of money without a very compelling reason. In the end, it's for safety."

But some experts on school safety wonder whether the pricey high-tech route is the answer. Columbine, for instance, had an armed security guard on the premises. And although video cameras might help with deterrence, they're not going to stop a determined killer. Nor can they solve the problems of bullying, harassment and alienation--which seem to have triggered many of the recent school shootings. Jan Hughes, an educational psychologist at Texas A&M University, worries that an overemphasis on surveillance can make kids feel targeted. That can increase the very alienation that lies at the root of so much youth violence. "[Surveillance] creates an environment where students don't feel that school is a place for them," says Hughes. "Rather than making them feel more comfortable, it makes them feel less secure." Hughes says schools should take a more personal approach to safety by building trusting relationships between teachers and students.

They're trying to do just that at Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., where administrators are identifying adults from faculty members to custodians to cafeteria workers whom students trust, then teaching them how to counsel the kids. "You can put up all the fences and guards you want," says Heath principal Bill Bond. "But when a kid pulls a gun and starts firing, all the prevention measures in the world are virtually useless. It's got to be prevented in kids' hearts." Almost 2,000 miles away, students at St. Genevieve Catholic High School in California's San Fernando Valley will spend the first week of school talking about how to build character and the importance of relationships. "We're not doing metal detectors," says principal Dan Horn. "We're doing welcome mats."

One program that many schools find effective in reducing violence is peer mediation. At Waterford Mott High in Michigan, the program has shown remarkable results. Before it was instituted, as many as 40 fights a year broke out at the school. But last year peer mediators resolved more than 90 disputes between students: only one ended in a fight. Such interpersonal approaches can start even in elementary school. At the Douglas School in the rural town of Princeton, Ill., kindergartners are learning to communicate with each other through "peace circles," where they air grievances and offer praise. The program, PeaceBuilders, has gotten high marks from researchers--and from the little people, too. "By being a peacebuilder," says Ryan Gosnell, 6, "you are making the school a better place."

But as with metal detectors and cameras, even the best- intended communication approaches are far from perfect. A recent study of 84 popular violence-prevention programs, including PeaceBuilders, gave just 10 an A; more than half received a C or D, many because they concentrated too heavily on providing information rather than on helping kids develop interpersonal skills. Other well-meaning attempts to stop violence before it happens also fail to live up to their promise. In Florida, Cheryl Catchings and her son Jo Jo started an anonymous teen tip line, Speak Out, after Jo Jo, an African-American, was jumped by a truck full of white boys on a gang initiation ritual. The program is now active in 10 Florida counties and administrators in other states are interested in setting up Speak Out lines of their own. But Wesley Mitchell, chief of police for the Los Angeles Unified School District, says their local hot line has typically been used not for productive tips, but to harass fellow students. "It doesn't work," he says.

Even at Columbine, where a community has united in tragedy, there is no consensus on how to prevent the violence from recurring. The school now has 16 new surveillance cameras, and students must wear ID tags at all times. Parents are being recruited as hall monitors, and administrators are suggesting a dress code that bans hats and camouflage clothing. (In the immediate aftermath of last April's shooting, the school banned black trench coats.) But, says Kurt Bigelow, president of the newly formed Columbine Alumni Association, "all of the ideas that we have come up with wouldn't have prevented what happened April 20." In a country where a quarter of students say guns are easily accessible at home, expecting any measure to make a school invulnerable is unrealistic. There is no technological fix to the threat of school violence, and measures that strike at the root causes of youth violence have a long way to go. For schools, after all, are products and reflections of the society they serve.


NUMBER OF CASES    · 0-9    ·10-49     ·50-99    ·100+