SINCE 1759

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Fortress Follies
Campus Security—From Within

Columbine High School, April 20, 1999

In the wake of the horrible and tragic murders that took place at Virginia Tech this week, I knew there would be calls, as there have been already, for ridiculous proposals in response. The events of this week call for some real discussion and some real solutions to the problems of school violence. But unfortunately too often that discussion centers around a law enforcement solution, answering violence for more violence (as in suggestions that more students be armed), or locking down schools and universities more effectively. This fortress mentality is predictable—it’s guided our foreign policy for the last six years—but when will we learn that it doesn’t work? In spite of the security measures taken since Columbine, are schools any safer?

I am a school administrator, and I work in a fairly large public high school. I understand the need for security in schools, and for the most part I am a fairly law and order type of school leader. I believe strongly in order and discipline. But let’s not kid ourselves into believing that a strict disciplinary approach will prevent school violence. I remember when the shootings at Columbine occurred that some school officials I knew at the time were convinced that the shootings occurred as a result of Columbine’s supposedly lax disciplinary code. Apparently Columbine administrators didn’t keep their gum-chewers in line. Common sense tells us that a deranged school shooter doesn’t really care about whether we have strict no-gun policies in place. He doesn’t care much about being expelled.

Likewise, the best school security plan in the world will not prevent random acts of school violence like Columbine. Many high schools have done a much better job of locking schools up—reporters around the country love to see if they can show up unannounced and walk into a school without being stopped by anyone. But even with these improved security measures no one with a semi automatic weapon is going to be deterred by a locked glass door. The improved construction and security measures in place in many schools are effective and sound for lots of other reasons—keeping angry parents or thieves out, for example—but we are deluded if we truly believe that these kinds of measures will stop a Columbine or Blacksburg type of event. Ultimately a school is for students, and in both of these instances, the crimes were committed by students at the institution. Can we build a school that locks students out and protects them inside its walls at the same time?

Thousands of tragedies take place on a weekly basis in American schools—suicides, rapes, students cutting themselves or starving themselves, and countless other acts of intense bullying and harassment—that are all more or less preventable. Fortress mentalities don’t build security. Knowing and engaging students before they become a threat to themselves and others does.

No, security has to come from within. Real security comes from knowing and engaging our students before they become a threat to themselves and others. There are thousands of other tragedies that take place on a weekly basis in American schools—suicides, rapes, students cutting themselves or starving themselves, and countless other acts of intense bullying and harassment—that are all more or less preventable. These tragedies may not have the same scale or ratings value as Columbine or Blacksburg, but they are all part of the same problem of self-loathing, disconnected American youth trapped in a culture that worships violence and physical perfection.

So the conversation today needs to focus on the elements of our culture that lead students to desperation, but an even more practical approach is to focus on issues of youth and mental health. For the reality is that many, many students living in the same culture do so while becoming well adjusted and mature young adults. What happens to the rest? How can we provide them help?

Counseling services in American schools have become almost exclusively focused on academic and learning issues—special education, course planning, career counseling, college applications and admission. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Of course academics is a school’s primary function. But school counselors and psychologists are constrained by their job expectations and culture of schools to be nothing more than a triage unit for mental health services in schools. When a student exhibits bizarre or sociopathic behaviors in schools—or when a teacher like those at Virginia Tech notices violent tendencies in his work—where can the school turn?

For real security, schools need better systems of support for students. Nurses are the front line of defense for mental health, and most schools have student-nurse ratios that are far too high (if they are lucky enough to have a nurse at all). School psychologists who spend most of their day giving IQ tests need to be freed up for a greater role in providing mental health services. A few schools have social workers, a few provide drug and alcohol intervention, and a few provide real (not just academic) counseling to students—but it is rare. These kinds of support services have to be seen as being just as vital to the school’s mission as teachers and principals. Support services like these need budgetary support to thrive. That’s a local issue, but also a national one. (See below an excerpt from the proposals of the National Association of School Psychologists.)

Student culture can be changed within schools as well. I’ve observed schools with excellent peer-to-peer conflict resolution programs. Other schools use peer mentoring to provide student leadership that creates a climate free of bullying and harassment. Students also have to get over the concept of “tattling”. Far too many acts of harassment and bullying go unreported because of the destructive and childish attitude that reporting such behaviors is ratting someone out. School culture depends on size also. I’ve worked in schools of all sizes, and I know from experience that in smaller schools, students are more likely to have direct support from adults, and are less likely to be anonymous wallflowers throughout their school careers.

Want real security? Forget Fortress Senior High School. Forget giving more arms to students, for the love of Christ. Forget the ridiculous notion of arming principals. Let’s start having conversations about real mental health services in schools. Let’s provide a structure in schools that identifies and offers treatment for students who need it. Let’s provide a more humane and preventative approach to the sick, rather than searching for presidential bromides once it’s too late.

Excerpt from the recommendations of NASP on the reauthorization of NCLB (pdf):

NASP recommends requiring schools to determine and to assure the availability of social and mental health services for their students as part of their school improvement plan. The Commission on No Child Left Behind (2007) has asserted that it is critical to fully understand and to comprehensively address students’ behavioral, social, and emotional needs in addition to their academic needs. In their report, the NCLB Commission cites the comprehensive research indicating that students struggling with mental health concerns achieve at higherrates when schools identify and intervene with these problems early. The
Commission links access to mental health services to improved student outcomes and recommends that, when creating their school improvement plan, schools should be required to determine the availability of school and community social and mental health services to support struggling students. NASP concurs and further maintains that school improvement plans should include mechanisms for assuring access to such services along the full continuum of mental health care.

Link to Daytona Beach News Journal’s editorial. The conclusion:

The questions lead to an uncomfortable conclusion, but also an inevitable one: No matter the precautions, no matter the place, people will commit atrocious, random acts for reasons of their own, and no one will be able to anticipate or stop them. The United States is not unique in this. In a society like the United States’, where openness is prized, and where easy access to guns is also prized, atrocious, random acts will be more frequent, as they have been. The alternative isn’t to respond with draconian alterations to the national way of life, least of all on college and university campuses, whose fenceless access and openness physically exude the freedom they stand for. It’s to improve communication and psychological support systems where possible, and to accept that even in the best of places, tragedy will, at times, have its way.

[Essay originally appeared at Ohdave's Into My Own.]

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