Recent Incidents Should Shine Spotlight on School Safety
> 9/29/2006 12:43:25 PM

We have only just recently embarked on a new school year, but reading the headlines from across the country, it would seem that violence at schools has skyrocketed in the last couple of weeks. Beginning with college student Kimveer Gill's rampage at a Canadian university, there have now been several shootings and acts of extreme violence on or near school property in the last couple of days and weeks with many more potential crimes being foiled, what seems like daily.

Just hours ago, news reports sprang across the wire that a principal in Wisconsin had been shot by a recently expelled student who walked into his former high school with several weapons. Thankfully, no students were harmed. Only two days ago, a 53-year-old man entered a high school and took several female hostages, eventually killing one before taking his own life amid a SWAT offensive. For the Bailey, Colorado, community, only one hour's drive from Columbine High School, the situation had horrifying reverberations with the past. In Washington DC and Hillsborough, North Carolina, similar situations have already played out this young school year.

As Dr. Lily Hung wrote earlier, being proactive and identifying the stressors and warning signs may help us prevent many of these troubling situations. The foiled attempts reported around the country can serve as a beacon of hope that vigilant administrators, teachers and especially other students can and will stop problems before they explode. But as some of these more recent crimes have demonstrated, it is not always current students or even those familiar with the school that we must fear.

Why this new rash of violence? Statistics have shown a decline in violence over the last decade plus, but through that lens, the recent spike (especially when one considers the Canadian incident) seems all the more troubling. Events like a school shooting do not happen in a bubble, and in fact receive an almost disproportionate amount of media attention when compared to most other murders. In this way, an attack like Gill's can serve as a impetus for others that have harbored similar notions, but been hesitant to act. Gill himself professed an obsession with the Columbine attacks that took place 7 years ago.

Taking all these situations into account, it would seem that at some level, schools, as a part of the socio-political system require some buffering of their image as safe havens. Millions of students attend both public and private schools everyday without incidence, so it would be unfair to say that students are in danger. Schools should be places of safety, and studies have found that school safety measures have increased over the last 4 years. But violent deaths haven't necessarily decreased steadily over that time.

Certainly, frightening, headline-grabbing incidents at schools are going to happen. The goal should be to not just minimize, but proactively identify and defuse situations. These types of incidents don't "just happen." They are usually the result of years of build-up, and weeks, if not months, of planning and forethought. This provides onlookers with plenty of time to act.

Beyond that, creating environments that encourage learning and discourage violence, particularly homicidal violence, is of paramount importance. Schools not only need to be safe, but need to ensure that they are not viewed as a potential spot for violent crime. There is no easy formula. Schools and communities nationwide must look inward to decide how to best utilize their resources toward these goals. Strong leadership from administrators and teachers at the school and parents in the home can establish better environments. Truly, a unified approach can make schools safer and, and safer students will more readily learn and achieve their full potential.

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