September 15th, 2004

Commentary: Safety and Excellence

Safety and Excellence

By John Merrow
Published: Fall 2004 / Educational Horizons Journal

As far as schools are concerned, there are three kinds of safety: physical, emotional, and intellectual. Excellence demands all three, while “good enough” schools are simply physically safe. Unsafe schools are bad by definition.

Because most public schools are physically safe places to be, I am not going to devote many paragraphs to the subject of physical safety. Even with the rash of school shootings we’ve had over the past few years, the odds of being shot to death in school are one in 6 million. There were nine gun-related homicides on school grounds in 1999,and school enrollment is about 55 million. Less than one percent of the 2,500 child homicides and suicides in the last six months of 1997 took place at a school or on the way to and from school. School crime continues to decline, even faster than the nation’s overall crime rate. By the numbers, our neighborhoods, homes, and highways are far more dangerous places for young people. It’s understandable, however, that school boards are concerned about security; they certainly don’t want to have another Columbine on their hands and have to try to explain away a decision not to install metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and so forth, even though many security experts say that metal detectors are less efficient than low-tech approaches. What’s more, most metal detectors are unsuitable for large schools,which have a dozen or more entries.

However, schools are thinking security: Philadelphia put metal detectors in all its high schools at a cost of $5 million. Chicago did the same in its middle schools. Other schools have been conducting random searches, installing security cameras, and adding guards. Is this an overreaction? Probably, because most school violence doesn’t involve guns or knives, but good old-fashioned fists. Still, teachers must be wary, because they know that lethal weapons are easily available. Many schools and districts have adopted what’s called a “zero tolerance” policy, meaning that one offense leads to automatic suspension or expulsion. Some policies require calling in the police as well.

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