As a result of the recent tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, attention is once again focused on the issue of school safety. Over the past few years the number of shootings on school campuses across the country has been increasing at an alarming rate. Here in South Carolina, we have experienced our own share of tragedies. School district officials are searching for answers to why these tragedies occurred and what steps can be taken to decrease the likelihood that they will happen again. Realistically, however, district officials also need to be planning crisis management strategies in the event that such tragedies do reoccur.
These questions focus attention on a number of different issues, including gun control; parental responsibility; mental health screening, student supervision; general campus security and even movie, television and videogame industries. As a result, solutions must involve a number of different players, including the legislature, community agencies and organizations, parents, and district officials. While districts may feel the desire and the burden to ensure student safety, districts cannot be expected to be the ultimate guarantor of student safety. However, certain steps can be taken to improve a school's ability to prevent a crisis and to deal effectively with a crisis should one occur.
One of the primary steps in providing for student safety is the securing of the school grounds through such steps as limiting access to the building through doors which are highly visible and easily monitored. In order to avoid fire safety issues, doors may need to be installed that lock in such a way so as to prevent entrance but allow for exit. Additionally, administrative offices may need to be located at sites around the school building so as to provide for greater visibility of the administrators and greater ease on their part in monitoring comings and goings. School resource officers and/or hall monitors also may be utilized to patrol the halls of the school throughout the day. School resource officers in particular, when highly visible, serve as a physical presence which may deter student and/or visitor misconduct. Furthermore, all students and employees should be required to wear identification tags of some kind and all visitors to the school should be required to sign in at the school office and be issued a temporary identification tag. It is also critical that visitors' whereabouts and departures are monitored. Students who are suspended or expelled should have their ID tags confiscated until such time as they are allowed to return to school. As a result, anyone who does not have appropriate reason for being on the school grounds will be readily identifiable.
While these may be some of the steps taken to provide for a more secure school campus, general awareness and individual responsibility can play an even greater role. Students and employees should be informed of the steps that have been taken so they will be aware when something appears to be inconsistent with these steps. For example, if a student is aware that everyone is to have on an identification tag at all times, including visitors, then the student will know to report a person who does not have on such a tag. Along these same lines, students should be encouraged to report to teachers, school resource officers or administrators any behavior by fellow students they feel is threatening or disturbing, and any conduct they observe that is in violation of school rules and state law, such as possession of a weapon on campus. Students should be given the means to report such matters without fear of retaliation or ridicule. Moreover, all employees should be informed that they are expected and encouraged to report such matters as well, including those that are reported to them by students. All such reports should be quickly and thoroughly investigated.
With regard to weapons in particular, the first step in dealing with the weapons issue is to adopt and enforce discipline policies which clearly define the objects which are considered to be weapons and the consequences for bringing them onto school grounds. As you may know, possession of a firearm on school grounds by a student is a violation of state and federal law and can result in a student's expulsion from school for one full calendar year. Steps should be taken to insure that both parents and students are fully informed of the weapons policy and the consequences for weapons possession. Further efforts to prevent students, or others, from bringing weapons onto campus could involve the use of routine, random locker searches and metal detectors. Because there are a number of legal requirements related to searches and the use of metal detectors, they should not be utilized without first adopting appropriate policies and procedures which include provisions for administrator training and parental/student notice.
Another avenue for preventing violence on school grounds involves identifying students with emotional or psychological disturbances which could lead them to commit violent acts. District employees need to be informed of the importance of being proactive in looking out for indicators of mental health problems and in taking all threats and unusual behaviors seriously. As mentioned earlier, students should also be encouraged to come forward to report statements or behaviors of their fellow students when there is any fear or concern of any kind. Additionally, students need to be informed that idle statements such as "I'm going to kill you" will not be tolerated, even if they are intended in a playful manner. Finally, parents who refuse to obtain mental health services for their children, when the need is apparent, may ultimately have to be reported to the Department of Social Services for neglecting their child's needs.
If and when violence on campus does occur, how well a district is prepared to respond to the crisis is critical to minimizing the harm. A plan should be in place which addresses the involvement of law enforcement and emergency medical assistance, as well as an education component for assuring that everyone who is affected and involved knows what to do in the event of a crisis. Unfortunately, the involvement of the media is also inevitable. As a result, working cooperatively with the media should be a part of the overall plan, to include identification of a spokesperson and the kinds of information which must, or should not, be released.
While immediate steps can be taken to assure that school campuses are safer, the societal issues of gun control, parental responsibility, and violence in the media industry can only be addressed through long term efforts on the part of a wide range of players. Of equal importance is the need to be prepared in the event that tragedies on school campuses do reoccur. Districts must assume that violence in their schools is always a possibility.