The topic of school violence was on the minds of many this past spring as the nation marked the 10th anniversary of the deadly shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School, where two teens killed themselves, 12 classmates and a teacher on April 20, 1999.
Discussions about school violence only intensified two weeks later, when a 17-year-old student at Canandaigua Academy took his own life in a school bathroom.
The Canandaigua suicide spurred renewed discussions about school safety and left many wondering what steps must be taken in order to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future. Schools can take any number of measures to enhance safety, but in the end it all boils down to the human element, said Kenneth Trump, president of Cleveland, Ohio-based National School Safety and Security Services.
“The first and best line of defense is a well-trained and highly alert staff and student body,” said Trump, whose organization provides school-safety consulting services to schools nationwide.
Staff and students alike should be familiar with their schools’ policies about who should and should not be in the buildings, he said, and teachers should be trained to spot student behaviors that could eventually lead to safety concerns. Students also have a role in ensuring security, he said, noting that students often are the first to hear rumors about conflicts between students or about students bringing weapons to school.
Kathleen Coye, principal of St. Joseph School in Auburn, said her staff and students work together to keep the school safe. All the doors to the school are locked, and the main entrance has a security camera and buzzer attached to it. When visitors ring the doorbell, the staff in the main office can see who’s at the door and activate the buzzer to let them in.
“We have parents and visitors come to the office and sign in, and then wear a visitor badge,” Coye said. “Occasionally someone going out holds the door for someone coming in, and when they don’t report to the office and walk around without a visitor badge our teachers and students notice and call the office if they don’t know them.”
Recently, for example, students and a teacher saw several repairmen walking throughout the building unaccompanied by a staff member. The men weren’t wearing the standard visitor badges, so a teacher called the main office on her classroom intercom to make sure the repairmen were legitimate, Coye said.
“Occasionally I have seen students open the door for adults, and I remind them that for safety reasons we need to let the office staff let people in. This is sometimes hard, since we try to be friendly and welcoming,” she said.
Parents, for their part, don’t seem to mind the small inconvenience of waiting to be let into the school, Coye added.
“Parents are grateful that we have the doors locked and buzzer in place for the safety of all,” she said.
Such entry systems are among the many physical measures schools can implement to enhance their security, Trump said.
“The physical-security needs will vary from school to school and school system to school system,” he said. “The uniqueness of each facility makes it something a cookie-cutter approach just doesn’t apply to.”
A building’s age and layout will dictate what types of security enhancements and systems it needs, Trump said. Like St. Joseph’s in Auburn, Brighton’s Siena Catholic Academy utilizes a camera and buzzer system at its main door, said Principal Timothy Leahy. Visitors are allowed to enter once the staff in the main office has identified them and knows it’s safe to let them in, he said.
“We have all the doors locked and a camera system at strategic points throughout the school. That enables the main office and administration to see via the computer what is going on at various points of entry to the school,” Leahy said.
Our Lady of Mercy High School in Brighton also uses a system of cameras and buzzers to maintain a secure environment, said JoAnn Wawrzaszek, assistant principal for student life. The school has cameras trained on the two locked doors used during the school day, and visitors push a button that rings a telephone in the main office; the phone rings with a different chime for each door, she added.
Once visitors are inside, they must report to the main office, sign in and pick up guest passes, she said. All of the school’s faculty and staff wear identification badges, so there should never be an adult inside the school without some sort of school identification, she noted.
Rochester’s Nazareth Academy has several camera-and-buzzer systems, said Sister of St. Joseph Patricia Carroll, president. A camera at what’s known as the “sports entrance” is linked to a buzzer in the gym so a coach can remotely admit students arriving late to practice, she explained.
Local schools don’t depend solely on cameras and other devices, however. Schools must have plans in place that outline what steps are to be taken in any kind of emergency, Trump said. Such plans should prepare school officials for everything from violent situations to inclement weather conditions.
The New York State Department of Education’s Safe Schools Against Violence in Education program, known as Project SAVE, is intended to provide safety resources to school officials who are developing emergency plans. According to the education department, such plans should include such prevention and intervention strategies as peer-mediation programs, anonymous-reporting mechanisms, programs that teach students about nonviolent conflict resolution and training programs to help faculty detect potentially violent behaviors.
The plans also should include policies and procedures calling for frequent training opportunities and drills, according to Project SAVE materials.
Staff members at Siena practice their building lock-down procedure at least once a year, Leahy said. This process could be utilized in the event of a chemical leak, a hostage situation or an unwelcome stranger on the campus, he said. In other situations, he added, school officials might decide to evacuate the school using Siena’s fire-drill procedure.
According to the state education department, a school safety plan also must include policies that dictate the school’s response to emergencies, including notification, activation and evacuation procedures. Another key component of safety plans deals with the school’s response in the aftermath of a crisis. Mercy High School, for example, has a crisis team that would come to the school in the event of an emergency, Wawrzaszek said.
“It could be something like the Canandaigua situation, when students and teachers might need some counseling or suggestions as to how to proceed,” she said.
The Diocese of Rochester likewise has developed such a plan for the Catholic schools it operates, said diocesan spokesman Doug Mandelaro. The plan covers situations ranging from winter storms, fires, bomb threats, gas leaks and medical emergencies to properly dealing with fights, bullying and responding to a person with a weapon, he said.
But even the most detailed plan won’t help if school personnel aren’t familiar with it, Trump observed. If a full-scale drill can’t be carried out, staff members should sit down and discuss their responses to every imaginable situation.
“There’s a huge difference between having a plan and having a plan that’s sitting on a shelf collecting dust,” he remarked.
School-safety resources available on Web
The following Web sites offer more information and resources related to school safety:
* National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts
* National School Safety Center, www.schoolsafety.us
* National School Safety and Security Services, www.schoolsecurity.org
* New York State Center for School Safety, nyscenterforschoolsafety.org
* New York State Education Department, www.nysed.gov