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

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.

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.

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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."

Data can be unreliable

Experts say that much of the data on low-level violence in schools may be unreliable, because schools historically underreport crimes to law enforcement. A good analysis should include actual reports of violence at a school site, as well as surveys of students and staff to find out if there are problems that have not been reported.

"You can find a principal who reports zero fights at the school, but you survey the students and they say, 'I'm afraid to go to the bathroom because I get beat up.' You've got to put the statistics

beside the survey to truly

know what is going on," says Pamela Riley, director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence at North Carolina State University.

"Schools would be well advised to keep a log of incidents and deal honestly with what is happening to see if perceptions are grounded in fact," adds June Arnette, associate director of the National School Safety Center in Westland Village, Calif. "Fear does interfere with the education process."

The issue of how this new security culture will affect learning is the biggest question for many educators. Safety concerns are beginning to influence the design of schools in ways that could have long-term consequences for education.

Security was a top priority in the design of a new middle school opening next week in Haughton, La., for example.

"For us, the big event was not Littleton, but [the 1998 shootings that killed five in] Jonesboro [Ark.]. We're a very rural school, just like Jonesboro," says architect Richard LeBlanc, who used to live in Jonesboro and designed the new school to make sure that gunmen could not shoot at kids from the woods.

"Our design is a fan-shaped facility, so you have an outside barrier on each side," he says.

The facility has the look of a minimum-security prison. Its enclosed by security fencing and barbed wire. An electric gate regulates admission. There are no student lockers, and teachers have keys only to their own classrooms.

This new design means that openness to the community - a long tradition in schools here -is set aside, says Mr. LeBlanc. "Our goal is to show the people that we can protect their children," he adds.

'Learning prisons'

Such designs prompt criticism that schools of the future could become "learning prisons" that undermine student morale and achievement. "What everybody does not want to do is have barbed wire on the fence outside the security gate as you come through the school. What people don't want to do is have security guards on every entry," says Matthew Poe, a partner at Moore Poe architects in Alexandria, Va.

"Yes, security is an issue, but you're still trying to establish an environment that is conducive to your children's learning and growing on a daily basis. You have to think about the mentality of a kid coming into that school," he adds.

Such concerns weigh heavily on officials grappling with security issues. When Williams Bay School District staged an emergency drill to simulate police response to a student gunman, it opted to use students outside the district for the exercise. "We did not want our students to have that fear of insecurity in their own building," says Peter Geissal, district administrator for Williams Bay, Wisc.

"Kids have to learn the joy of learning things," he adds, "and that's pretty hard to do when you have to walk by the policeman every morning and be in fear of your life."

*E-mail chaddockg@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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