Questions Related to General School Safety Issues
Is it possible to transform an unsafe school into a safe school?
Most schools in the United States are reasonably safe most of the time. There are schools, however, where students and staff members exist in a state of constant anxiety and fear. Bullying, disruption, and disrespect for authority are the norm. Effective teaching and learning are held hostage. Those who can escape to safer learning environments do so as soon as possible. In the late seventies, New York City's Samuel Gompers Vocational–Technical High School was just such a school. According to one account, "Alcohol, drugs, and fights in the halls were all commonplace. Assaults on teachers and fires in the classrooms were not uncommon" (Herbert, 1990, p. 99).
By the mid-eighties, Gompers had been transformed into a safe and successful high school. Student enrollment was up, crime and suspensions were down, and learning was taking place. Fear no longer roamed the halls. The school received national recognition as a "school of excellence." What accounted for this dramatic and relatively rapid turnaround?
In relating Gompers' story, Herbert (1990) identifies a variety of factors that helped to convert disorder into order. One key was a pragmatic principal who realized that students and staff members had to feel secure before teaching and learning could take place. He set to work apprehending students who routinely set off fire alarms. Coating alarms with indelible grease paint, he made a point of shaking students' hands until he identified the culprits. He also sent students home to change clothes when they wore expensive coats and gang attire to school. The schoolyard was reclaimed from groups of students who preferred hanging out to attending class. Serious crime, such as drug dealing and weapons possession, was dealt with swiftly and harshly. As they saw the school becoming safer, students and staff members gained confidence that they, too, could help make Gompers a good place to learn.
Once the student body and the faculty acknowledged that maintaining order was also their responsibility, and not just the administration's, efforts shifted to improving the curriculum and hiring new teachers. State-of-the-art electronics and computer programs were established, and weak teachers were replaced with well-trained young faculty. Students were selected for a consultative council that assisted administrators in handling such problems as attendance and hallway behavior. Pride supplanted fear as the prevailing feeling about the school.
Although inspiring, the Gompers' story is not unique. Gottfredson (1997, pp. 5-14 to 5-21) identifies a variety of studies that demonstrate the positive impact of schoolwide interventions. These initiatives vary, of course, in terms of particular strategies. Some involve behavior modification techniques, others rely on classroom management training, and still others stress consistent rule enforcement. In each case, though, the overall prescription for success is similar: safety first. Before effective teaching and learning can take place, students and staff members must feel safe and secure. Order is a prerequisite for, not a consequence of, good instruction.
To establish order, leadership is needed. Not just administrative leadership, but leadership by teachers and students. Individuals who insist on disrupting school and threatening people must be identified and dealt with. Training may be necessary so that students and staff members know how to handle challenging situations. Planning is important so that people understand what to do in an emergency. There are no shortcuts to safe schools. Planning and training require time. So does the cultivation of trust and feelings of safety. As the case of Samuel Gompers Vocational–Technical High School illustrates, however, patience and persistence have their rewards.
© ______ 2002, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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