Flying Bullets Put School Up Against a Wall

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TUTT Middle School has no metal detectors or armed guards, and violence in its halls is rare. But soon, an eight-foot-high, 700-foot-long wall will shield students from stray bullets.

The gunfire comes from an apartment complex that lines one side of the red-brick school in a residential area. In the past 10 years, bullets have pierced school grounds six times. Although no one has been hurt, the latest incident - a bullet that hit a truck last fall - prompted parents and teachers to vote to build the wall.

Tutt's unusual move is emblematic of how public schools across the country are trying to insulate themselves against an increasingly violent society.

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From small farm towns in Iowa to the gritty streets of inner-city Detroit, schools are turning themselves into minor fortresses.

''We don't think the shots were fired deliberately at us,'' says Tutt Principal William Watson. The problem, Mr. Watson says, is that the apartments, which house mainly blue-collar workers and people on public assistance, are so close - about 25 feet away. While he emphasizes most residents are law-abiding, the complex has experienced some crime, drug-dealing, and rowdy behavior. ''The wall will assure us of a bit more protection,'' he says.

Statistics suggest schools do need some security. According to the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., 3 million crimes, ranging from theft to assault, occur at the nation's public schools annually. While the figure has remained steady over recent years, the severity of the crimes has increased and the age of perpetrators has dropped.

Moreover, the number of student and staff deaths on school grounds has risen dramatically, jumping from about five murders each year in the early 1980s to an average of 50 a year during the past several years, says Ronald Stephens, the group's executive director.

In response, schools are becoming more security conscious, installing metal detectors and surveillance cameras, and putting armed guards in hallways. They're getting tougher on students who are instigating the problems by expelling them, sending them to boot camps, or assigning them to alternative schools.

Do fence me in

Although schools are mainly protecting students from other students, a growing number, such as Tutt Middle School in Augusta, Georgia's second-largest city, are finding they also have to guard their charges from the world around them.

''What we're seeing now is parents and schools and government officials recognizing that violence is becoming almost entirely random, and the only way to protect yourself is to build a community that is safe from the outside,'' says Larry McCallum, Jaeke professor of family life at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.

The move to cut off the outside world is reflected in society at large as more gated communities spring up in suburbs and cities. Colleges, especially those located in urban centers, are fortifying themselves by erecting gates and blanketing the campus with security guards.

Experts say the trend for schools to arm themselves will continue, especially if projections of juvenile crime, expected to escalate in the next decade, prove true.

But a growing number of educators and policymakers see the need to do more than turn schools into garrisons. A handful of states has established statewide school-safety centers that serve as a resource for schools and provide training and technical assistance on safety.

California recommends and South Carolina mandates that every school create a safe-school plan. The plans include strategies to enhance supervision of students, teach conflict resolution and other lessons aimed at quelling violence, and provide opportunities for community service and partnerships with business.

''Administrators are realizing that making schools safe is not simply a responsibility of the school, but a responsibility of the entire community and requires community collaboration,'' Mr. Stephens says.

Some new schools today are constructed following crime-prevention designs, such as Townview Magnet Center, a set of schools that opened in Dallas last fall. In addition to Townview's police officers, metal detectors, and dozens of surveillance cameras, the halls are wide and well lit, lights illuminate public spaces, and a wrought-iron fence allowing for supervision surrounds the perimeter.

Unlike many schools that have adopted a windowless exterior, Townview has windows everywhere to make grounds visible from inside. This design helps reduce crime by providing natural surveillance and more effective supervision and communication, says Timothy Crowe, a criminologist in Louisville, Ky.

Solid walls, on the other hand, can make supervision difficult and can become a canvas for graffiti, Stephens says. ''I don't want to criticize the schools on this - clearly they're reacting to some very real threats that exist within their community. Yet the nature of what is being done is not dealing with the problem, it's only dealing with the symptom,'' he says.

Not a cure-all

Principal Watson agrees that the wall is not a cure-all but feels it was necessary for his school. Davina Merriweather, an eighth-grade student here, concurs. ''I don't like the way it's going to look, but I think it's a good idea to protect us from stray bullets,'' she says.

Tutt is not located in an urban section of Augusta, but the residential neighborhood of tall trees and rolling hills near the school is a contrast to the more impoverished area closer to the school grounds.

On an overcast day made cold by a biting wind, Watson walks along the construction site where workers stack the concrete cinder blocks. He shakes his head. ''When the school was constructed 40 years ago probably no one realized society would be the way it is today with violent crime, drugs, and broken homes.''

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