Issues Challenging Education CLOUDS AND SUN

School Safety: What's Being Done and Where Is It Going?

Erin Black, Jim DeBerjeois, Annice Hood, and Pat Lane

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
"Joseph was a gang member in Wichita, Kansas. He attended a violence prevention class that taught him to use his head-not a knife or gun-to resolve conflict. Later that day, rival gang members threatened him. Using the lesson he learned that day, he de-escalated the situation before it produced bloodshed. The next day, Joseph told his teacher that the lesson had saved his life."

(Riley, 1996.)

Across the nation, concern about school safety has risen dramatically in the recent past. School safety has become the leading issue for parents, students, teachers, and school administrators according to numerous surveys, polls, and research articles(Landen, 1992; Sautter, 1995). School communities are being called upon to respond to and ameliorate the tense situations arising in their schools.

Conflict resolution classes like the one mentioned above are becoming a standard part of the curriculum in today's schools. According to recent media reports, the incidence of physical violence to both students and faculty has risen, and there is no indication that the situation is improving. In 1974, Congress mandated that the U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare conduct a national survey to examine the prevalence of school crime and identify the perpetrators. The study, Violent School-Safe Schools: The Safe School Study Report to the Congress, found that 40% of the robberies and 36% of the assaults on teenagers took place in schools. The highest rates of victimization were found in junior high schools, the perpetrators of the crime being students. More than 100,000 teachers were threatened with physical harm, and each month an estimated 5,200 teachers were physically attacked. Teachers were five times as likely as students to be seriously injured. Vandalism was the most costly of crimes in the schools.

The National Crime Victimization Survey reported to Congress in January, 1984, that school crime remained fairly consistent from 1974-1984. The Center for Disease Control (1995) indicated that students felt unsafe in schools, and that minority students were more likely to report feeling unsafe in schools. The National League of Cities reported in 1994 an increase in the incidence and severity of youth crime. Parents, teachers, students, and administrators have watched in dismay as their schools metamorphose from the safe havens they once were into war zones. Even in elementary schools, there are increased reports of fighting, students bringing weapons to school, and defiant and antagonistic behavior.

In our report we will examine the following questions:

How unsafe have the schools become?

What are the forces affecting the issue of school safety?

What are schools currently doing do address the issue?

What does the future hold for us?

School safety and discipline have always been a concern, but the increase in frequency and degree of school violence has brought this issue to the forefront in the past twenty years. During the 1970's, Congress began to look at the issue of school violence. Reforms such as conflict resolution, mediation, and state reform academies appeared during this time.

In 1984, the U.S. Department of Education released the report, Disorder in Our Public Schools, that highlighted the problem of school discipline with the following facts (Maginis, 1995):

  • Teachers spent 30 to 80 percent of their time on discipline.
  • Three million high school students were victims of in-school crimes each month.
  • Four out of every ten high school students had been a crime victim the previous year.
  • Each month 1,000 teachers required medical attention because of in-school assault and 125,000 were threatened.

In response to reports such as this, Congress passed the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act in 1986 to help schools combat the growing trend of violence. This act provides money to help put police officers in schools, install metal detectors, and support conflict resolution, drug awareness, and after-school programs. Despite the allocation of funds, the problem continues to exist. Ten years after the Disorder in Our Public Schools report, these examples of situations in the schools were reported (Maginis, 1995):

  • The 1994 National Teacher of the Year helped her California students hide weapons for protection "so they wouldn't get killed after school".
  • A Maryland teacher was shot after encountering a student armed with a pistol in the school restroom.
  • A Dartmouth, Massachusetts high school student was knifed and clubbed to death during a government class.
  • An Atlanta student opened fire in a crowded school cafeteria, killing one student and wounding another.

The issue of safety for our nation's students is not only the concern of inner city schools; suburban schools experience violence also (Burbach, 1993; Sautter, 1995). A study done by Hal Burbach for the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia looked at the increase of school violence as reported by principals over the period from 1988-1993:

School Violence - Five Year Increases

Percent of Principals Reporting Incident (1993)
IncidentUrban Rural
Girls fighting 59%41%
Boys fighting 43%34%
Gang-related 43%31%
Gun-related 38%26%
Drug-related 26%17%
Fights/different Races 20%23%

(Burbach, 1993)

Although youth crimes have declined in general, there is evidence that such crimes have become more serious and violent. From 1975 to 1990, the youth arrest rate dropped from 26% to 15 % of all arrests (Sautter, 1995). However, Education USA reported that violent assaults in schools escalated 14% from 1987 to 1990 (Landen, 1992). Although juvenile crimes may not be on the rise, there is a growing fear that juvenile crimes are more lethal. In 1992, 2,829 youths were arrested for murder (Sautter, 1995). Traditionally, schools were not affected by juvenile crimes that may have occurred in the community. Juvenile crimes are now taking place in the schools and the severity of those crimes is increasing. A survey of teachers 40 years ago indicated that most classroom problems were tardiness, talkative students and gum chewing (Rossman & Morley, 1996). Their contemporary counterparts indicate the presence of drugs, gangs, and weapons; concerns about verbal assaults and bullying. Physical attacks, robbery, and rape were the most pressing concerns (Gaustad, 1991; Sautter 1995).


There are a number of forces that drive the issue of school safety, violence and discipline. After World War II, the school population doubled, to include a more diverse community (Berliner & Biddle, 1995). Concern also rose as the public became more involved in the school. A more involved parent population combined with a more diverse school population contributed to the subtle fear of the minority population that was different from the status quo.

The fear combined with violent current events is the major driving force behind the issue of school safety.

Parents, teachers, community members, administrators, and students have become more concerned due to the reported increase in violent crimes in our schools and our society in general. The fear which follows increased media coverage, whether warranted or unfounded, perpetuates concern for school safety. This concern continues to be a national issue at the federal, state, and local levels.

Although schools reflect the larger communities in which they are located, the public perception is that crimes should not take place on school grounds. Society feels that schools are safe havens that should protect youth from the adverse conditions of the surrounding community (Rossman & Morley, 1996).

There are various explanations for the causes of youth crime and violence that may account for the threats to a safe school environment (Rossman & Morley 1996).

  • Biological factors or stressors that impair individuals' abilities to exercise cognitive controls or engage in stable social relationships;


  • fetal alcohol syndrome
  • "crack babies" who suffer from chemically compromised neonatal development
  • Family environment/relationships, including:
    • poor parenting skills and child-rearing conditions
    • insufficient nurturing
    • lack of positive social relationships
    • lack of parental supervision
    • ineffective or harsh discipline
    • repeated exposure to domestic violence; one of the strongest predictors of youth involvement in violence is a history of prior violence, including having been a victim of abuse (Sautter, 1995)
  • Limited opportunity routes attributed to social inequities (such as racial/ethnic discrimination ) and economic/demographic shifts;
    • adults' hampered abilities to be gainfully employed
    • youths' minimized exposure to positive social role models
    • youths' diminished ability to envision productive, secure futures.
  • Pervasiveness of crime and violence throughout the society
    • rising substance abuse
    • proliferation of handguns
    • distressed neighborhoods where threats to safety are endemic and taken for granted.

The media and advertising industry contributions to juvenile crime should not go unnoticed. The media highlights and often sensationalizes violence (e.g., television programming, music lyrics, videos, movies). Some children's video games and toys endorse violence as the most appropriate response to deal with frustrations and solve problems.

Where is the issue of School Safety going? What are its prospects?

Across the nation, school communities are attempting to respond to and ease the tense situations in their schools. In 1986, the National Department of Education started the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program to help schools fulfill their responsibility to keep young people safe. Currently, 97 percent of all school districts in America participate (Riley, 1996).

A few organizations, such as the National School Boards Association (1993), offered some strategies and approaches to dealing with school safety. The strategies were: (a) modifications to the physical environment or security protocols, (b) modifications to the organizational environment, (c) introduction of curricular enhancements, and (d) creation of community collaboratives for problem solving and multiservice provision.

Responses to the issue of school safety can be organized into two different frameworks. One response to the issue of school safety and the increase in violent acts by students can be characterized largely as reactive. The other response involves more positive visions for the future and has a more proactive focus.

Reactive reponses tend not to create solutions for the causes of school violence, although they can increase safety for all members of school environment. Some of these actions include installing metal detectors at school building entrances, utilizing drug sniffing dogs, and hiring security officers or police officers to work on the school grounds during the school day. (Landen, 1992). Many schools are enforcing restrictions and regulations that are control aspects of school life, such as a stricter dress codes and the suspending of extracurricular school events. (Sautter, 1995).

Other schools are reponding to the growing concern for safety by attempting to solve the problem rather than just dealing with it. One such approach, called personalization by its creators, seeks to personally reach the students in their school who were most often engaging in disruptive and violent behavior. Huntington Beach High School who reported the success of this approach, based their program in part on the principles advocated by Theodore Sizer (Shore, 1996). Theodore Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, feels that personalization is the key to keeping kids in school. The Coalition for Essential Schools Program stresses that students must feel that adult educators are personally interested in their well being and their staying in school (Coalition of Essential Schools, 1997).

Huntington Beach High School reported success with this approach. Targeted students were paired with an adult buddy (community volunteer) who served as a mentor to support and listen to students. The program also included a team of administrators, student support personnel, community outreach liaisons, as well as faculty members. This team met weekly to discuss the progress of students. The administration held a student forum twice a month, and initiated various student non-academic recognition programs.

The Huntington Beach's program was regarded as successful, in that, the school had the lowest expulsion and suspension rate in the district; 51% of students who were targeted in the program raised their grade point averages; and test scores throughout the school rose. The school reported other positive effects that correlated with the initiation of their program. Administrators were not sure what aspects of the program made the most difference, but they maintained that an overall positive change in the school climate had a cyclical effect on the accomplishments of the students, which continually improved school climate (Shore, 1996).

The American Psychological Association (APA) asserts that if kids learn conflict resolution skills early, they will be less likely to become involved with violence (American Psychological Association, 1990). The Community Board of San Francisco is known nationwide for their belief supported by the APA study. The Community Board's program seeks to teach children and teachers how to settle disputes, communicate effectively, and cool tempers before an individual makes a inappropriate choice and someone gets hurt. The Community Board's curriculum programs include specific lessons that teach skills, but also stress factors that lead a school to become a truly peaceful place (Williams, 1991).

These examples are just a few of the proactive programs in place seeking to increase school safety by curbing violence and improving discipline and behavior of students These programs typically have several aspects in common (Johnson & Johnson, 1995; Kenney & Watson, 1996; Sautter, 1995; Shore, 1996; Wallach, 1994; Williams, 1991):

  • they work to increase mutual respect among and between teachers, students, and administration;
  • they actively teach conflict resolution skills and mediation skills;
  • they offer proactive assistance (academic tutoring, social services connections, community support) to students who are repeatedly being disruptive and unsafe;
  • they advocate personal responsibility for actions and promote self-discipline.


As our society continues to change, so does the role and responsibility of the public schools. Schools will have to look for creative ways to facilitate discipline and to stop violence.

Critical to the development of safer schools for our children is a connection between local systems, counties, and states. As we move toward national standards for achievement, we need to demonstrate a consistent commitment to safe schools for all children. Many efforts are going on across the country, but there must be greater communication. School and systems will waste time and other valuable resources by attempting to create what works instead of searching for all ready existing programs or strategies that would meet their needs. As the violence in our schools increases, so does the urgency of developing initiatives to counter it.

One of the forces that threaten school safety can be traced to the lack or breakdown of connections in the family and community. Of the successful methods for dealing with these disconnections, the underlying component is increased involvement among members of the school community. Schools must foster bonds between the staff and students, and between schools and families. Academic goals should be the primary focus, but stronger relationships will advance schools to these goals. Schools that do not recognize the importance of building such connections will be undermining their own safety reform efforts. A negative or even adversarial relationship between students and their schools will work against attempts to make them feel safe in school.

Schools must also work with outside agencies to develop ways to meet the needs that foster violence. For example, biological factors or stressors were mentioned as an explanation for increased youth crime. Schools must work with community support systems such as Departments of Social Services, Mental Health Agencies, etc. to understand the manifestations of such factors and to develop plans for pooling resources to deal with the factors and neutralize or reverse their effects.


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Berliner, D. & Biddle, B. (1995). Manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud and the attack on America's public school. White Plains, New York: Longman.

Burbach, H. (1993). Violence and the Public Schools. [On-line] Available:

Coalition of Essential Schools (1996). Nine principles. [On-line] Available:

Gaustad, J. (1991). Schools response to gangs and violence. Eugene, OR: Oregon School Study Council.

Johnson, D. & Johnson, R. (1995). Why violence programs don't work - and what does. Educational Leadership, 52:5, 63-67.

Kenney, D. & Watson, S. (1996). Reducing fear in schools. Education and Urban Society, 28:4, 436-455.

Landan, W. (1992). Violence and our schools:What can we do? Updating School Board Policies, 23:1, 3-7.

Maginis, R. (1995). Violence in the school house: A ten year update. [On-line]. Available:

Rossman, S. & Morley, E. (1996). Introduction. Education and Urban Socirty, 28:4. 395-411.

Riley, R. (1996). Updates on Legislation, Budget, and Activities: Remarks of Secretary of Education, Richard Riley. [On-line]. Available:

Sautter, R. C. (1995). Standing up to violence. Phi Delta Kappan, 76:5, K1-K12.

Shore, R. (1996). Personalization: Working to curb violence in an American High School. Phi Delta Kappan,77:5, 362-363.

Wallach, L. (1994). Children coping with violence: The role of the school. Contemporary Education, 65:4, 182-184.

Williams, S. (1991). We can work it out: Schools are turning to conflict resolution to help stop the violence. Teacher Magazine, 3:2., 22-23.

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