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Planning Is 1st Step Toward Creating Right Climate

<i> Ronald D. Stephens is executive director of the National School Safety Center, based in Westlake Village</i>

No greater challenge exists today than creating safe schools. Restoring our schools to tranquil and safe places of learning requires a major strategic commitment. It involves placing school safety at the top of the education agenda. Without safe schools, teachers cannot teach and students cannot learn.

With the vicious shootings and carnage that U.S. schools experienced this past year, many communities and school systems are faced with a great deal of public pressure to implement new strategies to make schools safer. Many of these strategies involve metal scanners, surveillance cameras and a series of controls, restraints and restrictions and curfews upon students. Often such strategies appear draconian and tend to create an armed camp mentality in the schools, rather than a warm and welcoming safe school climate.

It should not require an act of courage for parents to send their children to school and neither should students feel intimidated while there.

There is a host of strategies school administrators can implement that can make a positive difference. The difficulty often is in effectively analyzing the problem, deciding what strategies to implement and how to adopt those strategies with both parent and student support. The key is for parents, students, educators and the community to work together.

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Safe school planning is all about the “art of the possible.” It is not limited to a specific menu of options. Each community must shape the type of safe school climate it wishes to create.

A safe school plan, more than anything else, is a function of community will, priorities and interests. It requires partnerships and cooperation. The components and the players are limited only by the creativity, energy and commitment of the local community. Crucial players include students, educators, parents, law enforcers, judges, recreation program directors, prosecutors, probation directors, mental health leaders and other youth-serving professionals. The key questions they must ask are: “What do we want to accomplish?” and “How do we make it happen?”

A safe school is a place where students can learn and teachers can teach in a welcoming environment, free of intimidation and fear. It is a setting where the educational climate fosters a spirit of acceptance and care for every child; where behavior expectations are clearly communicated, consistently enforced and fairly applied. Unlimited options and potential exist for safe school planning. It requires only the ability to get started and then implement the plan.

The success of these strategies will depend on the overriding presence of eight key factors. School leaders must:

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* Establish clear behavior standards.

* Provide adequate adult presence and supervision.

* Enforce the rules fairly and consistently.

* Supervise closely and sanction offenders consistently.

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* Cultivate parental support.

* Control campus access.

* Create partnerships with outside agencies.

* Believe you can make a difference.

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The following list details ways schools and communities can work together to promote the educational mission of schools and preserve schools as safe havens in which children can learn and develop their skills as successful, socially responsible citizens. Each school should select and modify those strategies that are relevant to their educational mission and process.

It would be nice to believe that nothing is required to make schools safe. However, reality suggests that it requires a sustained, committed and cooperative emphasis.

Here are some ideas that may help this process in your community:

* Place school safety at the top of the educational agenda on each campus and within the community, and measure progress toward that goal.

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* Develop a comprehensive, system-wide safe schools plan, complemented by plans tailored for each school.

* Parents must invest time with their children at home and at school, asking direct questions to draw out information about incidents or fears the child may be reluctant to share.

* Enhance multicultural understanding and cultural competence, focusing on individual worth rather than group polarization.

* Ban forms of nonphysical intimidation, such as “stare-downs” or “mad dogging.”

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* Get students involved in planning and implementing safe-schools strategies, and devise a life-skills curriculum that teaches responsible citizenship and conflict resolution.

* Implement a peer counseling and peer mediation program.

* Make the campus welcoming. The best principals and administrators greet their students each morning and are present in the hall during class changes and at special events.

* Establish an engaging system of extracurricular programs and services, to offer students a range of positive activities before, during and after school.

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* Develop and enforce a school dress code, because both students and staff tend to behave the way they are allowed to dress. Involve students and parents in devising these policies and enforce them consistently.

* Ensure that behavior expectations are clearly communicated, consistently enforced and fairly applied.

* Carefully screen and select new employees. Every school system should have clear policy guidelines to weed out individuals with criminal backgrounds of misbehavior involving children.

* Create a climate of ownership and school pride, beginning with a clean and orderly school. School administrators should also work with police to shut down drug houses and stop illegal group activities in the neighborhoods surrounding their schools.

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* Provide adequate adult supervision, including teachers, administrators, parents, campus supervisors, police officers and volunteers such as retirees who may be eager to help out.

* Identify specifically assigned roles and responsibilities, such as monitoring hallways and restrooms, patrolling parking lots and supervising special events.

* Mandate crime reporting and tracking, the better to monitor the effectiveness of these steps.

* Identify and track repeat offenders, because most school crime problems are caused by a small percentage of students.

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* Maintain close supervision and provide remedial training for offenders. Troublemakers should not be rewarded with time off from school or lighter class schedules; their training and supervision should be stepped up.

* Expand alternative placement options for troubled youths, especially those who have committed weapons violations or other serious disruptions.

* Consider placing a probation officer on campus, freeing the school staff to spend more time with all students rather than being tied up with the troublemakers.

* Require restitution and community service for all juvenile offenders, giving individuals involved in vandalism or malicious mischief a positive means of making amends for their offenses.

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* Control campus access by minimizing the points of access and exit and staffing these points with school officials familiar with the student body.

* Require picture identification cards for each student and staff member.

* Articulate a clearly defined locker policy, emphasizing that lockers and their contents may be searched at any time.

* Distribute a summary of laws pertaining to school disorder, drafted by the district’s legal counsel, to all site administrators and security personnel.

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* Review discipline and weapons possession policies, emphasizing measures that attach the problem and not merely the symptoms.

* Establish a crisis response plan that focuses on prevention, preparation, management and resolution.

* Establish an emergency communications center, and make sure site administrators can make immediate contact with all teachers and school safety personnel.

* Promote crime prevention through environmental design, such as trimming shrubs to improve supervision of all areas and replacing double-entry restroom doors with an open zig-zag design to better monitor behavior inside.

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* Remove posters from all windows, to enhance supervision.

* Use current technologies that promote crime prevention, such as electromagnetic door locks, microdot systems and surveillance cameras for difficult-to-supervise public areas.

* Limit opportunities to transport and store contraband. Some schools allow only clear plastic or mesh book bags, require the use of a coat-check area for oversized garments capable of hiding weapons, or provide students with separate sets of books for classroom and home--eliminating the need for book bags.

* Stress that campus parking is a privilege, not a right, and that students who choose to park on campus agree to abide by campus rules, including having their cars searched.

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* Enhance interagency cooperation among youth-serving professionals. Creating safe schools is a community function; schools cannot accomplish this task alone.

* Consistently enforce information-sharing agreements.

* Establish a parent / volunteer center on each campus, to recruit, coordinate and encourage parents to participate in the educational process. School crime decreases when responsible adult supervision is present.

* Conduct annual school safety training programs for all staff.

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* Provide teacher training programs, to help teachers develop coping skills and techniques for controlling classroom behavior and dealing with disruptive youths and angry parents.

* Conduct an annual review--an ongoing reality check and refinement of the safe-schools actions and attitudes that the school wishes to create and maintain.


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