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Part One: Five Things Parents Need to Know About School Safety

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September 26, 2016 01:15 pm

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Last week’s fatal shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte as well as those from this summer in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas expose the tragic consequences that racial bias and poor community-police relationships can have on efforts to keep communities safe. These high-profile incidents highlight what numerous research studies, media investigations, and court rulings already have shown—that a person’s race often influences the experience he or she has with authorities.

Unfortunately, similar racial bias and poor relationships exist in the ways educators and law enforcement officers keep the nation’s schools safe and can impact the effectiveness of those efforts. To put these experiences in context, part one of this blog explains how schools try to ensure students’ physical safety and how those measures impact traditionally underserved students. Here are five things parents should know:

1. Schools are safer now than ever before, but not all students feel safe. 

During the past two decades, the national rates at which teens experience violent and nonviolent crimes in their schools and surrounding communities have declined, according to a report from the U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Justice (DOJ). While the level of crime in individual schools and communities still varies, overall victimization, gang activity, fighting, and the presence of weapons have decreased in most schools. Yet, African American and Latino students report feeling fearful of being harmed at school and in their communities at higher rates than white students. Middle and high school students who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender report greater feelings of fear at school as well, according to GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network).

 

2. More schools are putting security measures in place.  

Between School Years (SYs) 1999–2000 and 2013–14, the percentage of schools controlling or limiting access to their buildings increased from 75 percent to 93 percent, while the percentage using security cameras increased from 19 percent to 75 percent. During that same time period, schools increased other security measures as well, such as the use of random dog sniffs and requiring teachers, staff, and students to wear badges or picture IDs. Additionally, 43 percent of public schools have one or more security guards, community police officers, or school-based law enforcement officials (known as school resource officers (SROs) present at least weekly. That percentage has not changed significantly since SY 2005–06. High schools, large schools, and schools that serve predominantly students of color are more likely to have police officers on campus, according to civil rights and school safety data from ED.

 

3. Some school security measures make students and staff feel less safe. 

The presence of SROs and other law enforcement officials, in particular, can have mixed results. Some surveys find strong support among parents, students, and school staff who report that police officers make schools feel safer. “[O]ther reports highlight that parents and students feel threatened by or oppose the presence of police, particularly in communities of color,” according to The School Discipline Consensus Report developed by The Council of State Governments Justice Center. “How officers are perceived in the school is often linked to how they are perceived in the community,” the report continues. Consequently, students’ previous negative encounters with police and a misunderstanding among school personnel and others about officers’ roles as disciplinarians can create challenges to building effective school-police partnerships.

 

4. Criminalizing student misbehavior has lasting negative consequences. 

Data shows that the majority of youth arrested or ticketed, both in and out of school, receive citations for minor offenses. Among juvenile offenders, 63 percent are confined in state and county correctional facilities for “nonserious offenses,” such as breaking school rules, running away from home, or missing court hearings. Only 37 percent are confined for “serious offenses,” such as drug distribution and violence. Moreover, African American and Latino students are overrepresented in minor and discretionary-based ticketing and arrests, even though research does not show that students of color misbehave at higher rates. “[A]lthough African American and Latino students comprise 16 percent and 24 percent of the nation’s public school-age population respectively, they represent more than 70 percent of the students who are involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement by the school,” according to the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Climate Change reports. These disparities occur in schools that do not have school-based officers as well. Youth who end up in the juvenile justice system are more likely to drop out of school and have later encounters with both the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.

 

5. Parents can make a difference. 

Providing a safe environment ranks among the top characteristics parents identify as important for their children’s schools. So what can parents do?

  • Find out if your school has a safety/security plan, whether law enforcement officers are part of that plan, and what data the school has collected to evaluate the plan’s effectiveness and the perceptions students and teachers have about their safety on school grounds.
  • Participate in efforts to create an effective school-police partnership in your local community. Ask questions about how your school system gathers input about these partnerships and the data school leaders use to decide whether to implement or disband such partnerships and measure their effectiveness.
  • Support policies that clearly define the role officers have on school grounds and the criteria teachers and school administrators will use to determine when to involve law enforcement in nonemergency situations. Such policies should 1) minimize police responses to minor student misbehavior that educators can handle appropriately through the school or district’s disciplinary process and 2) empower officers to use alternatives to arrest when feasible.
  • Ask about the selection, training, and evaluation process for school-based officers and how school and law enforcement leaders supervise their work.
  • Encourage school leaders and law enforcement officials to formalize key elements of their school-police partnership through written agreements. Both sides should review these agreements regularly and refine them based on input from parents, students, teachers, school administrators, law enforcement officers, and community members.

 

Kristen Loschert is editorial director at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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