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Schools Get Results With Gun-Free Zones

Students play key role in a host of antigun programs

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 1996



RESEDA, CALIF.

Reseda High School is fully armed.

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To fight against weapons on campus, that is. It is an official gun-free zone.

The site of one of the city's highly publicized student shootings in 1993, in which one teen deliberately killed another in the hallway, the San Fernando Valley campus has since become a virtual encyclopedia of programs to fight campus violence.

"For starters, we have a full-time Los Angeles police officer, in the nation's only specially adapted campus golf cart," says principal Bob Gladifko, brandishing a list of 14 activities aimed at halting campus violence. "After the shooting," the administrator says, "we started a zero-tolerance pupil expulsion policy of up to a year, [and] put our LAPD officer in uniform."

And in an effort that has been echoed around the country, the school put students at the center of many of its prevention programs, involving them in everything from peer counseling to clueing adults in to potential problems and weapons on campus.

Crimes involving weapons are increasing faster than any other type of juvenile offense, according to the US Justice Department. In a recent survey conducted by the National School Boards Association (NSBA), 31 percent of the school districts nationwide reported implementing gun-free zones, but all in combination with as many as 30 categories of efforts aimed at reducing school violence.

"Our sense is that the problem ... has increased," says Laurie Westley, assistant executive director of the NSBA. "All over the country, we're seeing more programs, more hardware, and more focus on how to keep kids safe at school."

Across southern California, school districts have spared no effort in fighting violence. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) lists 10 separate programs designed to protect and educate students about weapons and violence. These include several bilingual parent-training series, conflict resolution programs, and STAR, or Straight Talk About Risks, an antiweapons and violence program also found as far away as New York City public schools.

No district is immune. Even in relatively suburban areas, schools are getting tough in their fight against guns. Chatsworth High School, as well as the entire San Diego district, recently eliminated lockers from secondary schools to reduce the availability of drugs and weapons. Diamond Bar High School has implemented routine, random canine searches, using gunpowder-detecting dogs on campus.

Also in response to the 1993 shootings, LAUSD mandated daily, random metal screenings on all high school campuses. These are conducted by school administration personnel, but LAUSD police officers may be present. Larry Hutchens, assistant chief of the LAUSD school police, says this is for a good reason. "Visibility is an important issue," he says, adding, "Our very presence is a deterrent."

Officials at Reseda agree. In the wake of the Reseda shooting and another accidental shooting death at Fairfax High School in the same year, the school hired its police officer and began the expulsion policy in response to policy recommendations by the LAUSD.

But a crucial element in its prevention program has been W.A.R.N. (Weapons Are Removed Now). The idea of Reseda teacher Jay Shaffer, W.A.R.N. has been copied in districts from Baltimore, Md., to Pocatello, Idaho.

Armed with the knowledge that students knew the gun was on campus the day of the shooting, Mr. Shaffer recruited student volunteers. "Kids are the first to know if a weapon is on campus," he observes, adding that his program is designed to get students to speak out.

The key? "Get them beyond their fear of retaliation," he says. "We use older kids to educate the younger kids that it's protecting everyone to speak out."

Indeed, recruiting students in the fight against violence has been a major factor in turning the tide, Mr. Gladifko says. Student participation is the common thread running through most Reseda programs, such as a suicide-prevention student-counseling strategy called IMPACT, a peer counseling program, a dress code, and an antiweapons contract signed by students, parents, and administrators.

"No one single program is responsible for turning the tide against violence. All these things work together," Gladifko explains, including a confidential tip line run by the district and a neighborhood school watch program.

Senior Gina Landon has been active in W.A.R.N. for three years. The blond cheerleader says attitudes are changing. "Everybody realizes what's happening now. We want to stop the violence with our generation."

Deterrence is key, Gladifko says, noting that even private schools have joined the fight. His W.A.R.N. group is scheduled to speak at a parochial high school following an incident there in which the principal was shot in the face by a student.

Gladifko observes that violence at Reseda High has gone down since the 1993 shooting, and he recently asked parents at a community meeting whether the school should drop the metal screenings, since "we never find anything." The parents voted to keep the screenings "strictly for their value as a deterrent."

Gladifko observes: "We've created an island of safety," noting that "students are safer here than they are walking home."

Now, he adds, "the community is next."