Another school year, another round of school shootings. And another difficult time for parents, who struggle to explain such violence to their children while wondering how to stop it.
Increased security, changes in school design, better emergency training and more parental involvement are all touted as part of the solution.
Understanding the problem helps, too.
Those problems didn’t start with the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, where two students killed 13 people. But Columbine often is where conversations about school safety end up.
And while many parents may fear a Columbine type of tragedy, with fears fueled by extensive media coverage, school shootings get such coverage precisely because they’re so rare, says Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center since it was formed in 1984, by presidential directive, to deal with increasing school violence.
“Schools continue to be the safest place for young people to be,” he says, even though “I know it’s difficult for parents to embrace that right now.”
An all-around approach
Still, keeping schools safe means more than stopping a high-profile tragedy, according to the California-based National School Safety Center. Students must be free not only from outside threats but also from bullying and harassment. When they don’t feel secure at school, learning suffers.
“It’s about an overall plan,” Stephens says. From that grew more peer mediation and classes in non-violent conflict resolution.
Robyn Sato has two children in Chicago Public Schools and is chairwoman of the local school council at Farnsworth Elementary, where her daughter is in eighth grade. She recalled her son, now a high school senior, wanted to talk about Columbine when it occurred.
“There were some kids at (his) school who were continually ridiculed,” says Sato, who lives in Jefferson Park on the city’s northwest side. “Everywhere they turned, it seemed they didn’t fit in.” Both her children know they must set an example.
“I’ve told them they have a social responsibility to see that that kind of behavior is not tolerated or encouraged,” she says.
Stephens urges all parents to get involved.
“The role of the parents is so critical,” he says. “It’s all too common to drop your kid off at kindergarten and pick them up at 12th grade, and wonder what went wrong in between.”
Brian McPartlin didn’t want to wonder. He’s on the Mount Prospect District 57 school board. He and his wife, Amy, have three sons in local schools. All, he says, know they should go to a trusted adult if they feel threatened or see anything that worries them.
McPartlin served in the Clinton administration and eventually working in Chicago as the Department of Education’s Great Lakes regional representative.
After Columbine, he says, the department urged schools to work with local law enforcement to review security and emergency-response procedures. When he was elected to the school board in April 2005, he wanted to make sure that advice was being followed.
Five years ago, when Al Pretkelis became principal of Thomas Kelly High School on Chicago’s southwest side, he found himself dealing with some major gang problems. But things have changed.
Getting into the building now is “just like going to the airport,” he says. Students walk through a metal detector (boys and girls go in separate doors), and all backpacks are run through an X-ray machine.
Roaming the halls are 16 full-time security officers, plus two armed Chicago Police officers. Dozens of security cameras are in place.
Security officers also help tutor students, which Pretkelis says builds trust and camaraderie. And there’s a “security club,” whose members sit near the fire alarm.
It all makes for a much different Kelly High School than the one Pretkelis graduated from in 1969, but he knows times have changed.
“The community knows what we’re doing here,” he says, and he sees their approval in enrollment-up to 3,200 from 1,200 back in 1990.
How much is too much?
The security measures at Kelly are similar to those at some other Chicago public high schools. Even more could be done-if money were no object and safety was the only concern.
But “schools are not designed as defensible fortresses,” Stephens says, and that’s a good thing. Such a school “would be like a juvenile detention facility,” he says, “and I don’t know of any parent who wants to send his kid to their juvenile detention facility.”
Greg Crane agrees. He’s the co-founder of Dallas-based Response Options, which offers emergency-response training to school staff and students. Crane worked 14 years in law enforcement, and his wife is an elementary school principal.
“We are not willing to build the kind of schools you would need to build to keep a bad guy out,” Crane says. “So you have to start from the assumption that a bad guy can get in.”
Response Options’ training includes teaching staff and older students how to resist and subdue an attacker.
“There’s always a window there where the true first responders are going to be facing violence before help arrives,” Crane says. “We’re trying to give people options, ideas and training.”
That includes distracting a shooter by throwing things, giving students and teachers a chance to act.
“Does it mean we won’t have any casualties? Of course not,” Crane says. But “I can’t think of a situation where doing that would be any worse than sitting there and letting that madman walk through the classroom and take potshots at people.”
Stephens remains skeptical. It would be difficult for any teacher to urge students to rise up against an attacker, he says.
“The expectation most likely is unrealistic. The question for a parent is, do I want my child to be the first to be shot?”
It all adds up to a new reality that isn’t quite what Maureen Hager had in mind when she started her career three decades ago.
“There are things happening today that we could not even imagine in the past-the thought that someone would attack a child in a school,” says Hager, now superintendent of North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park.
Hager was an elementary school principal in Arlington Heights in 1988 when Laurie Dann walked into a Winnetka elementary school and opened fire, killing a student.
“It placed a real fear in me as a school administrator,” she says. “It brought home how important it is in this environment to provide this security for our children.”
One result: Area buildings were made more secure, Hager says. Another result: Parents, including Hager, talked to their children about it.
“I had to help them understand that school was not a scary place, but I had to tell them that people could do bad things anywhere.”
That fear never goes away, no matter how safe you think your school is.
“It weighs heavily on many parents’ minds, that’s for sure,” says Melanie Moorhouse, another member of the local school council at Farnsworth Elementary.
McPartlin, of Mount Prospect, says in a district like his, where crime is low and violence rare, it is possible to get too comfortable.
“When you see that displayed on TV in your family room, you want to say, ‘That can’t happen here,'” he says. “But the truth is, it can happen here.”
Checklist for parents
Administrators, parents and consultants offer these ideas for parents who want to assess how safe a school is:
• Are all doors locked except the main entrance?
• How is that main entrance controlled? The preferred system allows visitors to enter a lobby but get no further until they are buzzed into the office, where they sign in.
• Are parents involved? Do they volunteer as classroom aides or supervise in the lunchroom and on the playground?
• Are evacuation routes posted? How often do students drill in various scenarios? Some schools practice three options: fire (get out of the building), tornado (seek shelter, often somewhere else in the building) and shelter-in-place (stay put, lock the doors, even practice hiding-this is used for an intruder).
• What systems are used for emergency communications? Automated phone trees can spread the word quickly about a current crisis or let parents know about a suspicious vehicle or person.
• Talk to other parents, and talk to some students.
• Ask the principal for data on suspensions and criminal incidents in the school. Ask to see the school’s safety plan.
• Check with local police or local media for information on criminal incidents near the school.
• What is the school’s relationship with the local police department? Are officers present in the school, or is there a station or precinct nearby to respond quickly in an emergency?
Survey: Kids worry, too
The 2006 UCAN Teen Gun Survey asked tweens and teens questions about gun violence and safety in their schools and their neighborhoods. Results for the 12-15 age group were:
• 42 percent know someone who has been shot.
• 28 percent know a young person who has threatened to kill someone with a gun.
• 56 percent think the government doesn’t understand the realities of gun violence for teens.
• 82 percent agreed that handguns should be childproofed.
• 60 percent agreed assault weapons should be banned.
• 59 percent feel that metal detectors make schools safer.
• 51 percent believe they would benefit from more violence prevention programs and resources.
• 40 percent are afraid that gun violence might happen in their school.
• 18 percent believe they are safer outside of their school than inside their school.
The 2006 UCAN National Teen Gun Survey was created and commissioned by UCAN, a multi-service agency for at-risk children and families in Chicago. The nationally representative sampling of teen opinion (+/- 3 percent margin of error) includes more than 1,000 respondents ages 12-19 from around America. Complete results can be found at www.ucanchicago.org/advocacy.
John O’Neill is a writer and dad living in Oak Park.