First, the good news: media reports to the contrary, most American schools are pretty darn safe. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 6% of students between ages 12 – 18 report being scared that they’ll be hurt at school. In fact, our youth are 50 times more likely to be murdered away from school than in it. Still, in the 2003 – 2004 school year, 44% of public schools reported at least one violent incident to the police, and 21 students and 37 staff members were murdered at school. That’s the bad news.
While every district has different needs, the National School Safety Center offers these tips for concerned parents:
- Talk with your kids. Ask if they feel ever feel afraid, if they’ve ever heard about gangs or weapons on campus, and what the school does to prevent bullying. Does the school enforce no-drinking and no-drugs policies? If they ever heard something alarming (rumors about a school shooting, dating violence, a predatory teacher) would they know whom to tell, and do they feel they could safely report it?
- Ask what the school is doing to keep students safe. If there were an emergency at school, how would you be notified? If a student seems depressed or aggressive, does the guidance counselor notify his parents and refer him to professional help? Is there a zero-tolerance policy about guns and violence in school? Are there metal detectors and security guards? Does the school partner with local law enforcement or offer fingerprinting for younger children? Even if you live in a safe community, safety should be on the agenda at school board meetings and it should be a top priority for the principal.
- Empower students. Suggest that the principal appoint student reps to discuss safety at school board meetings, establish an anonymous tip line so students can report threats and crime without fear of reprisal, establish a student disciplinary committee, offer classes on conflict resolution and mediation, and develop mentorship and peer counseling programs for newcomers and victims of bullying. If she’s unresponsive, start a parent committee to keep tabs.
- Get involved. Visit the school during lunch, between classes, and after school. Does the campus feel safe? Did anyone check your ID? Were students wearing gang colors or baggy outerwear that could hide a weapon? Get to know your child’s teachers, and tell them you want to hear from them if they have any concerns about your child’s behavior or safety. Make sure the staff has your work and home phone numbers in case of emergency.
The odds are that your child is safe at school. But until we can report that every campus is safe, there’s more work to do.