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Safe schools, at a price

Educators caution there may be costs to the new security culture -like

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 1999


Statistics show that school is the safest place a child can be in a community. But you wouldn't guess it to see the barbed wire being looped over new security fences as classrooms reopen for the fall.

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Or to watch students and SWAT teams play out "hostage drills" at schools that have never confiscated a weapon more dangerous than a penknife.

School safety has shot to the top of the education agenda in the United States - and set off a surge of techno-security buying. Experts say that April's shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., marked a sea change in public thinking about school safety.

The market for metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and devices such as transparent lockers and see-through book bags is booming, as is the demand for the services of a new category of professional: the school safety consultant.

But some educators caution that there are costs to this new security culture. Turning schools into Fort Apache could feed a climate of fear, excessively restrict student rights, and shift resources away from learning.

"We must avoid discovering in a few years that Columbine was the event that precipitated a decline in the prominence of academics as the goal of schooling," says Christopher Cross, president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education.

In some districts, security expenses are already outpacing expenditures on texts - and the unexpected costs of this post-Littleton buying spree are just beginning to register.

Metal detectors and surveillance cameras have been fixtures in big-city schools for more than a decade. What's driving this surge in demand is new school-safety concerns in small towns and suburbs.

Since the April 20 shootings at Columbine High, state and local governments have redirected millions toward school safety:

*California now requires a safe schools plan for every district, and is backing up this mandate with $100 million in new funding.

*Ohio, Minnesota, Kansas, Oregon, and North Carolina launched state-wide school safety hotlines, to respond to anonymous tips.

*Illinois is committing $13.9 million to a new "Safe to Learn" plan.

*Washington State is offering $7 million in matching grants to help schools try safety strategies that have been helpful elsewhere.

But even as they announce new programs, many school officials admit that all the new gadgetry and emergency procedures at their disposal can't guarantee that a tragedy will never happen on their watch.

"It's easy for school districts to show tangible, concrete things to parents, the media, and the community," says Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services Inc., in Cleveland, Ohio. "It's harder to come up with a long-term security plan and a process that makes sense," he adds.

On a recent visit, for example, he found that a high school had installed 25 new surveillance cameras, but had no plans to monitor or load them with videotape: Their budget covered the hardware, but not the manpower. "On the surface there are 25 cameras, but they are not effectively used," he says.

Consultants who have worked with schools on these issues say that a key challenge is to figure out what the security needs actually are. By focusing on thwarting a terrorist siege, schools may be wasting resources -and overlooking far more likely threats.

"Contrary to the perception created from the school shootings nationally, the most popular weapons in schools today are box cutters, knives, and razor blades," says Mr.Trump. "We need to train people to deal with or even recognize their presence."