Questions Related to General School Safety Issues (page 3)
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.
How should resources be targeted to make the biggest difference in school safety?
Educators know better than many professionals that we live in a world of limited resources. When it comes to making schools safer, they rarely are given a blank check to cover expenses. Assuming funds are limited, how can educators get the greatest benefit for their expenditures related to school safety?
This article has presented a variety of approaches to school safety, each involving certain costs. In some cases, the costs involve training for staff members and students. In other cases, special materials such as curriculum guides and workbooks must be purchased. Hiring school resource officers, hall monitors, special counselors, and other individuals to deal with safety-related responsibilities entails a considerable investment, as does making adjustments to school facilities and acquiring security technology such as surveillance cameras and metal detectors. Other expenditures may involve after-school programs and constructive alternatives to keep young people from getting into trouble. All of these cost items can contribute to school safety, but together they may be beyond the means of many schools.
Determining how to target scarce resources, of course, depends on the particular circumstances of a school. It is the judgment of the author that the most helpful strategy for relatively large middle schools and high schools—the schools where safety problems tend to be greatest—is to subdivide them into smaller units. The costs associated with downsizing a secondary school into houses, schools-within-a-school, or academies may include architectural fees, renovation expenses, stipends for teachers involved in planning activities, and salaries for additional personnel. The investment, though, is well worth it. Research suggests that smaller, less impersonal learning environments experience fewer behavior problems. Teachers get to know their students better and function as members of teams, assuming collective responsibility for the welfare of their students. Students feel a greater attachment to smaller learning units and participate in a wider range of activities.
In considering how best to invest funds for school safety, it is important to be guided by a comprehensive plan with specific goals. Goals should be based on actual data concerning safety concerns and student needs. Simply purchasing new security devices and sending teachers to school safety conferences are unlikely to yield benefits unless they are part of a coordinated series of initiatives aimed at addressing particular problems. To avoid wasting resources, a sensible first step should be to analyze school safety data and develop a comprehensive school safety plan. The plan, in turn, can guide subsequent expenditures.
It is important to remember that some of the most important keys to safe schools involve no cost at all. These include developing a clear set of expectations for student conduct and communicating them to students. Reinforcing positive values and treating students with care and respect entail no expense, but the potential dividends in terms of student well-being and school culture are inestimable.
What grade level poses the greatest challenge for educators concerned about school safety?
Although particular schools may experience problems in particular grades, eighth and ninth grades tend to be seen as the trouble spots in American education. Retention rates increase dramatically at the ninth grade, for example. Students who are retained at grade level for academic reasons are more likely to become discipline problems. Eighth and ninth graders account for disproportionately high percentages of behavior referrals and suspensions. Academic work frequently plummets in these grades as young people deal with the challenges of adolescence and moving to high school (Duke, Bourdeaux, Epps, & Wilcox, 1998). Drug use becomes a major problem in the eighth grade, with more than one out of every five eighth graders trying marijuana and 17% experimenting with an illicit drug other than marijuana (Johnson, O'Malley, & Bachman, 1999, pp. 24–25). In A Tribe Apart, Hersch (1998, p. 134) cites a report by the Virginia Department of Education that captures the concerns surrounding eighth and ninth grades:
"Incidents of weapons possession and referrals to substance abuse programs peak during the middle school years." The report says that "violent and unruly behavior" peak in eighth and ninth grades, that approximately 70 percent of weapons found in public schools statewide are found in middle schools.
When Austin, Texas, took a close look at its ninth graders, it found that fewer freshmen passed all of their courses than students in any other secondary grade (Paredes, 1991). Fewer than half of Austin's ninth graders passed all of their courses. With almost one out of every four ninth graders retained at grade level, the retention rate for ninth graders was more than three times as great as that for any other grade. Attendance for ninth graders dropped off dramatically, and disciplinary referrals exceeded any other grade.
Can anything be done to address the problems of eighth and ninth graders? Many educators feel that part of the problem, at least for ninth graders, stems from the transition from middle school to high school. It is hard to go from being "a big fish in a small pond" to being "a little fish in a big pond." To address the stresses of transition, school systems have tried a number of promising strategies. Intensive summer remediation programs have been developed for rising ninth graders with academic deficits. A growing number of high schools offer self-contained ninth-grade programs, some geared toward at-risk students and others designed for all ninth graders. Students in these transition programs take their core academic courses from ninth-grade teachers organized into teams. Modeled after middle school teams, these groups of teachers plan together for the same group of students. Because their classes are "blocked," they can rearrange time and group students to meet their academic and behavioral needs. A study of ninth-grade transition programs in Virginia found that most were perceived to have reduced discipline problems and enhanced students' psycho-social adjustment to high school (Duke, Bourdeaux, Epps, & Wilcox, 1998).
Some school systems have gone beyond teacher teams and block scheduling to create ninth-grade houses with their own assistant principal and guidance counselor. Physically separate from the rest of the high school, ninth-grade houses cut down on the problems that can arise when older students pick on and haze ninth graders. Several school systems, including Chicago, Illinois, and Alexandria, Virginia, have created separate schools for ninth graders. In other cases, such as Cincinnati, educators decided that the best way to deal with transition problems was to eliminate the transition. Secondary schools in these places house grades 7 to 12, thereby cutting out the need for students to switch schools at the end of the eighth grade.
To address the restlessness and disinterest in academics that characterize many eighth and ninth graders, some educators have created exciting new schools and programs based on physical challenges and problem-based learning. The Discovery program in Orange, Virginia, offers eighth graders an opportunity to meet academic requirements while preparing for an end-of-the-year wilderness survival training program with Outward Bound. In Franklin County, Virginia, students spend a semester at a regular middle school and a semester in a totally different environment, the Center for Applied Technology and Career Exploration (CATCE). Instead of traditional courses, CATCE students select six-week-long modules that require them to work in teams to solve practical problems such as how to clean up a polluted stream and how to collect evidence regarding a crime. CATCE and the Discovery program prove that school need not be boring for young adolescents. High-interest learning environments such as these report fewer behavior problems and better attendance.
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