Fear has no place in schools. The concentration needed for thinking and listening just doesn't happen if students or their instructors are on guard against acts of violence.
That apprehensiveness, sadly, has flowed into America's secondary schools in the wake of recent shooting incidents, particularly last spring's murderous assault at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
The near universal response has been to beef up school security. Metal detectors and surveillance cameras may soon become as common as trophy cases and sports banners. Some schools stipulate only clear plastic book bags; one Florida school even issued two sets of textbooks to students, one for home, one for school.
Such steps range from the pragmatic to the slightly bizarre. And many principals and superintendents are rightly leery of only heightening fear with extraordinary security measures. The most effective steps will bind schools more closely to their communities and give youngsters the feeling that adults truly care about them - rather than fear them (a recent poll showed that 58 percent of Americans are afraid of youthful violence).
Closer partnerships with police departments can help. Officers should become more familiar with schools and get to know more students. Hall and schoolyard patrols by parent volunteers are common in a growing number of communities. They're tangible evidence that local people care about schools and children.
But perhaps nothing gets nearer the heart of the problem than efforts to alter school social tensions. Some kids feel alienated or bullied, while others shy away from letting teachers and principals know about situations that could turn violent.
When Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis opened his school Aug. 16 he called for students to sit next to people they don't know at lunch and appreciate the humanity of their fellow students. That may go against the grain of teen cliquishness. It'll require determined reinforcement, at school and home. Yet it's undeniably a key part of what's needed to reduce fear and enhance learning.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society