Monitoring the Hallways

Student safety has always been a priority for state and local school officials, but the emphasis on keeping classrooms safe has increased in recent years with the tragic school shootings nationwide.

“We live in a different world today, and schools are working hard to adapt to the new safety demands without hurting the overall culture of the schools,” says Marguerite Peebles, school safety and climate section chief with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. “There is a constant balancing act to protect the students at all times and still keep our campuses open and welcoming.”

School safety has come a long way from simply signing a visitors’ log in the office and donning a name tag. Safety and emergency plans are prepared at every level. Large school systems statewide have their own security departments. And state laws now focus on school policies to combat bullying and harassment.

Even with many new rules and programs, North Carolina continues to tackle the school violence challenge. In 2005-2006, 10,959 incidents or acts of violence were reported on state school property. This was an increase of 852 incidents, or 8.4 percent, from 2004-2005, according to the state’s annual report on school crime and violence.

With mandatory statewide and district school safety plans in place, everyone from students to parents to school leaders is doing the homework to identify and prevent school violence today, according to educators and school security experts. It is a challenging task that requires continual vigilance, communications and cooperation.

Parents Are the First Step

Today’s parents are on the frontlines and must take an active role in establishing and maintaining school safety, agree state and local officials. Open communication between parents, students and school leaders is an important first step in stopping school violence before it starts.

Russ Smith, director of security for the Wake County Public School System, says that communication with students, parents and law enforcement officials is essential. “Research shows that a lot of the time students say, ‘If someone would have talked with me ahead of time, this wouldn’t have happened,’’’ Smith says.

“Parents need to know they are a critical part of the school safety process,” says John Eldridge, principal of Grimsley High School in Greensboro. “We want the parents to stay informed, ask questions and express their opinions on safety issues.”

With a campus of 11 buildings and about 1,800 students, Eldridge relies on a number of safety resources, including parents and students. He encourages both to speak out and notify school administrators with concerns and tips on potential problems.

Parents should find out what their children’s school is doing to establish and maintain a safe learning environment as well as be aware of their own children’s typical behavior patterns so they can recognize potential warning signs.

School educators encourage parents to immediately contact teachers, school counselors or administrators if they have any hint of problems with their child or others. Speaking out early is often a key to avoiding or halting potential violent acts, officials agree.

“Most signs of potential violent behavior start with small things in the beginning,” says Eric Sparks, director of school counseling services for the Wake County Public School System. “We offer a wide variety of programs in our schools, encouraging students and parents to recognize certain behaviors and intervene.”

To encourage students to talk about safety concerns, the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention – Center for the Prevention of School Violence established a statewide safe schools tip line: 888-960-9600. Students can call the line anonymously and talk with a communications specialist who gathers information, prepares a written report and sends it to the school.

It is important for parents to talk with their children about school safety, says William Lassiter, director of the state Center for the Prevention of School Violence.

Parents should talk with their children about the steps being taken locally to promote school safety, explain that everyone has a responsibility for making schools safe, emphasize that violence is not an acceptable solution to problems, and stress that they are ready to listen to any concerns their children may have.

“Parents need to communicate concerns without unduly raising levels of fear,” Lassiter says. “A measured approach often is the best one, with parents informed and ready to calmly discuss the issue.”

Across the state, school systems work to keep parents informed in case of an incident. Automated telephone systems with recorded messages can be activated immediately for individual schools or systemwide. Letters explaining incidents often are sent home with students.

In the case of incidents on campus, school security officers ask parents to try to remain calm, give officials a chance to get all the facts and not rush to the schools.

“When even rumors of an incident start, students get on their cell phones to their parents,” says Bud Cesena, director of school law enforcement for the Charlotte/Mecklenburg school system. “While we certainly understand parents’ concerns, we just ask for time to respond to an incident and sort out the fact from the fiction.”

Bullying Is Not Tolerated

Today, students often face many forms of school conflicts, ranging from bullying and harassment to weapons on campus. Bullying, once considered almost a rite of passage among students, is now deemed a serious offense in schools.

According to a 2000 nationwide study of school shootings by the U.S. Secret Service, 75 percent of the attackers felt bullied or persecuted by others prior to the incident. And a 2004 study by the Nemours Foundation indicated that nearly half of all boys and girls said they had been bullied, while 42 percent said they had bullied others. “The prevention and early intervention of bullying behaviors needs to be pursued to stop the escalation of violence in our schools,” Lassiter says. “Bullying can be prevented as schools and community organizations work together to establish expectations and guidelines for students that will prevent inappropriate behaviors.”

North Carolina and local school districts have taken steps to establish strict policies to prevent bullying behavior. During the 2003-2004 academic year, the school violence center and the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention coordinated a statewide campaign entitled “Bullies Don’t Belong.” It focused on educating students, families, schools and communities on the possible serious consequences of bullying and ways to eliminate it.

In mid-May, the N.C. House passed a bill that would require school districts to adopt policies to combat bullying. The legislation was to be considered by the N.C. Senate, with action expected later this year.

The bill requires each local school system to adopt a policy before the end of the year that prohibits bullying or harassing behavior. The new statewide anti-bullying policy specifically tells teachers and other school officials to look for particular groups that are likely to be victimized.

Many school systems, like Wake County’s, already have a written policy that prohibits bullying and harassment under any circumstances. The original Wake County policy was adopted in 2004 and revised in 2006.

Students who believe they are being harassed or bullied should report the behavior to a teacher, counselor or administrator at the school, according to the policy. The school employee then must report the incident to the principal, who must investigate the report. Serious violations can result in long-term suspension or expulsion from school.

“No harassment of any type is tolerated in the Wake County school system,” says Sparks, the director of school counseling services. “If parents suspect any type of bullying or harassment, they should immediately contact their child’s school so it can be investigated.”

Many schools statewide have specific programs aimed at educating students about school safety and ways to maintain it. Diane Fish, advisor of the Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) chapter at East Garner Middle School, works daily to promote school safety and be a mentor to students. She was named the National SAVE Advisor of the Year in mid-April.

“SAVE is an opportunity to empower students to be a part of the solution,” she says. “We work to teach students options and give them places to go if they need help.”

Based in Raleigh, the National Association of SAVE was started in 1989 after the death of a West Charlotte High School student who was trying to break up a fight at an off-campus party. Today, there are over 1,600 SAVE chapters nationwide.

Fish says SAVE focuses on encouraging students to speak up about potential campus violence, developing strategies for eliminating problems on campus, offering positive alternatives to fighting or bullying, and encouraging students with problems to talk with adults or parents.

With about 50 members, the East Garner chapter meets weekly and sponsors various activities like an annual peace rally. Working with the program for eight years, Fish has seen positive results for students, parents and school leaders.

“Students see what is going on at school. They hear the talk in the halls, and through SAVE, they learn they have the ability to bring that information to adults and stop violence before it starts,” she says. “The students learn they can make a difference also.”

School Systems Tighten Security

Even before the rampage by two students at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 that left 15 dead, area schools had begun strengthening security by adding campus law enforcement officers, surveillance cameras and zero-tolerance rules against violent behavior.

Columbine forced North Carolina’s schools to take even more precautions, adding crisis plans, working more closely with law enforcement agencies, and focusing more on prevention.

Today, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction requires each school district to prepare an overall safety plan with a student code of conduct. State officials review all plans every three years. School districts have their own crisis management plans, and individual schools are required to prepare a safe school plan.

North Carolina’s largest school systems have their own security departments with patrol officers and investigators supported by local law enforcement officials. Video cameras with monitors, school resource officers and campus security associates also work to prevent violence on campuses.

Cesena, the director of school law enforcement for the Charlotte/Mecklenburg school system, oversees the largest school system in the state with more than 135,000 students and 161 schools. He supervises 11 patrol officers and four investigators as well as works with the 47 school resource officers in all middle and high schools. The school system also employs 120 campus security associates for middle and high schools.

In recent years, Cesena has seen an increase in the use of technology to help with school safety. Advances range from identification screenings for volunteers to a Web-based system that can contact parents six different ways.

“We work closely with local law enforcement officers and school administrators to be pro-active in our approach,” he says. “We are constantly getting calls for advice or assistance at the schools and we work to stay on top of all situations.”

Russ Smith, the director of security for the Wake County Public School System, oversees a 10-person department that serves the state’s second largest system with more than 130,000 students and 147 schools. The department includes investigators who work with schools across the county.

In addition to other required safety plans, the school system is implementing the National Incident Management System (NIMS) that unifies federal, state and local government response procedures for man-made and natural hazards and disasters.

“With this new plan, we will be able to more efficiently handle all situations than we have before,” Smith says. “This is really a major expansion of our current emergency operations plan in Wake County.”

Jane Paige is a writer who lives in the Triangle area.