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Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013 02:54 am

School safety is larger than Newtown

On Dec 14, 2012, the nation was stunned and sickened by a senseless tragedy that took the lives of 26 innocent people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. This horrific act has again brought the issue of school safety to the forefront across the country. President Obama has outlined an aggressive school safety agenda, governors and legislators across the country are proposing new antiviolence measures and local police chiefs and school superintendents are recommending specific interventions. But in Springfield there is an unsettling silence.

Perhaps the silence stems from a feeling of confidence in what amounts to a pretty sophisticated school security apparatus in Springfield Public Schools. Springfield Public Schools (SPS) hired its first security guard in 1983. Today security, a joint effort of the district and the Springfield Police Department (SPD), is provided mainly by the district’s own civilian security detail, school safety officers and regular and off-duty Springfield police officers.

The school system’s director for safety and security, Ralph Harris, a retired SPD sergeant, works closely with the police department to ensure optimal coordination between the systems. Over the years, SPS has installed door access systems in all district schools, card swipe devices, intruder locks, additional surveillance cameras and new communication equipment. All schools have safety plans and regularly train on them.

The Springfield Police Department conducts joint police-schools civilian security trainings, daily school building checks, special before- and after-school details, metal-detector wandings on request, periodic active shooter drills and much more.

In addition to physical security, social workers, psychologists, nurses, counselors, alternative programs, specialized schools and other psychological and social supports are essential for safe schools, and SPS provides them all.

But are schools safe? School shootings and incidents of life-threatening violence at school are relatively rare and the chance that someone will be killed in a school setting is extremely low. Consider that during the school year 2008-09 in America there were 1,579 homicides among school-age youth ages 5-18, of which 17 occurred at school.

As for school shootings, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, there have been around 205 major school shootings in the United States since 1995.

While the statistical prevalence of youth homicide and shootings in schools is low, the raw numbers alone are alarming.

Other types of school crime are more common than one might expect. According to the U.S. Department of Education/U.S. Dept. of Justice’s 2011 report Indicators of School Crime and Safety, “In 2010, among students ages 12-18, there were about 828,000 nonfatal victimizations at school, which include 470,000 victims of theft and 359,000 victims of violence (simple assault and serious violence).”

Data from the Springfield Police Department for the 2010/11 school year lists more than 450 total police reports filed, covering a broad range of incident types for Springfield Public Schools’ three high schools, plus Grant, Washington and Franklin Middle School and Douglas and Lawrence Alternative Schools. Among the more than 450 reported incidents that year, 129 were for aggravated battery, battery or domestic battery, 64 were for burglary or theft and 49 were for assault or aggravated assault.

Tragedies like Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown help to raise awareness about the most horrific of school crimes, but we cannot afford to ignore the other more persistent problems in schools today. Students exhibiting aggressive conduct and risky and destructive behaviors, bullying, substance abuse, mental illness, low achievement and family and personal dysfunction, are all problems that can lead to crime, violence or social problems at school.

The other given in the equation is that all the institutions tasked with keeping students safe and well have severely strained budgets. That invariably muffles calls for new initiatives. Hence, the silence.

The good news is that new national and state resources may flow to municipalities and schools to help address these concerns. Since school safety efforts are moderately advanced in Springfield, its city, schools and agencies are well-positioned to seek needed funds.

But where should new school safety resources go? Should we prioritize more direct security like more police, metal detectors, cameras, etc.? Should the priority be universal prevention programs – programs that deliver services to all children, regardless of individual risk? Or targeted prevention services for students with behaviors thought to contribute to school violence?

At this point it is unclear who among the established institutions will break the silence and call for action. But if new school safety plans do emerge, beware of quick-fix, reactive proposals like arming teachers, lining halls and parking lots with police or fortifying buildings. Also avoid universal prevention programs. While politically popular, they become diluted to appeal to the ideological sensitivities of large constituencies. Ultimately, only targeted and sustained prevention efforts that direct resources toward students with behaviors thought to contribute to school violence will help make schools safer.

Sheila Stocks-Smith was the City of Springfield’s education liaison for 6 1/2 years, working on a broad range of issues including school safety and student achievement and success.
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