Students attend schools and universities to learn, but it's hard to concentrate on studying in an environment where people are continually fretting about their personal safety.

Administrators undoubtedly would rather focus on their core mission — education — but the nature of American society in the early 21st century demands that education institutions go the extra mile to make sure their facilities and campuses are safe.

Cataclysmic events such as the Columbine High School killings in 1999 periodically force the issue of school safety to the forefront of the public's attention; but every day on school campuses, less horrific but still troubling incidents make it clear that providing safe campuses is a never-ending endeavor for school officials.

For instance, in January, a 15-year-old girl was wounded in an accidental shooting at a Vacaville, Calif., high school when a revolver that a 14-year-old boy was carrying inside his backpack fired. The same day, a 7-year-old girl was wounded at a Maryland childcare center when a gun brought to the center by an 8-year-old boy accidentally fired.

The week before, a police officer fatally shot a 15-year-old student at a middle school in Longwood, Fla., after the teenager pointed a gun at the officer. The boy's weapon turned out to be a pellet gun modified to look like a more deadly firearm.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2005,” states that in 2003, students ages 12 to 18 were victims of about 1.9 million nonfatal crimes at school. Teachers were the victims of about 183,000 nonfatal crimes at school that year.

The NCES report cites several problem behaviors regularly seen in school that are indicative of the hurdles many institutions have in creating a safe, nurturing environment where students can learn. Those include fights and other discipline problems, gang activity, the availability of drugs and alcohol, hate-related language and graffiti, bullying, weapons on campus, and areas of a school or campus avoided because students perceive them to be unsafe.

Schools and universities are using a combination of strategies to make their facilities safer and discourage or eliminate unwanted activities. Equipment and physical changes to a facility or campus can deter crime or make it easier to apprehend lawbreakers; increased police presence can deter criminals and send a message that campus safety is a high priority; prevention programs can address potentially troublesome attitudes and feelings before they manifest themselves as antisocial behavior.

Facility changes

Many forms of security equipment can provide extra layers of safety for education institutions. Schools concerned about weapons in their facilities often employ metal detectors to search students and others entering a building.

Advancements in computers and video equipment have made camera surveillance more effective and more affordable. The NCES report notes that in 1999-2000, 14 percent of primary schools, 20 percent of middle schools and 39 percent of secondary schools used one or more cameras to monitor the school. That number has undoubtedly risen significantly in the intervening years.

Similar advancements have made cellular phones, portable radios and other communications systems common. These allow teachers, many of whom have complained in the past of being isolated in their classrooms, to have an immediate line of communication available in case of an emergency.

Access-control systems that use cards, keypads, fingerprints or even iris recognition can help schools and universities keep track of who enters their facilities when, and limit access to more sensitive areas.

Crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) can lead to a safer campus without drawing attention to security measures that might detract from the campus climate.

Common examples include strategic placement of windows so that visitors — or potential intruders — are easily visible; wider corridors with better sightlines so student activity can be monitored more easily; use of landscaping to help clearly define campus boundaries; limiting the number of entrances to a school to facilitate monitoring of visitors; and regular maintenance and upkeep of facilities to help send a message that deterioration and vandalism are not acceptable.

Police presence

Using equipment or redesigning space is one way to bring about a more secure campus. Another strategy is to increase the presence of police. Some institutions have their own police departments or private security officers. Many schools and municipalities have used federal grants to pay for resource officers — sworn municipal officers who are assigned to one or more schools.

In a report submitted to the U.S. Justice Department on a pilot project that sought to integrate law enforcement into Milwaukee Public Schools, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee reached the following conclusions:

  • Enhanced police presence during transition times, and before and after the school day is important in ensuring school safety.

  • School and police administrators can increase the level of communication with each other.

  • Efforts to improve school safety should focus not only on the campuses themselves, but also the surrounding areas.

  • Schools can establish effective collaboration and partnerships to enhance the role of law enforcement in dealing with school safety.

At the higher-education level, collaboration and cooperation also are critical to more effective campus security. That was one of the conclusions that came out of the National Summit on Campus Public Safety in December 2004.

Because many college campuses are home to research involving sensitive and potentially dangerous areas such as nuclear or biochemical studies, administrators must be especially aware of possible terrorist attacks or other security risks.

The executive summary from the summit identifies the key consensus from the meeting: “Overcoming the fragmentation that inhibits innovation, partnerships and professionalism in the field of campus public safety.”

Summit delegates called for establishing a national center for campus safety to support information sharing, policy development, model practices, operations and research.

Teaching opportunities

It's no surprise that schools and universities will turn to education programs to help them deter behavior and climates that could lead to safety and security problems on campus.

Many schools have instituted prevention programs aimed at identifying students to discourage bullying and violence.

In a report for the National Institute of Justice, “The Effectiveness of School-Based Violence Prevention Programs for Reducing Disruptive and Aggressive Behavior,” researchers from Vanderbilt University looked at more than 200 studies of such programs.

“School violence programs were generally effective at reducing the more common types of aggressive behavior seen in schools, including fighting, name-calling, intimidation and other negative interpersonal behaviors, especially among higher-risk students,” the report says.

The researchers also concluded that the success of programs did not vary significantly based on the type of treatment strategies offered (social-skills training, cognitively oriented programs, behavior programs or counseling).

They “appeared to be equally effective at reducing aggressive behavior,” the report says.

Want to comment on this story? E-mail Kennedy at mike.kennedy@penton.com.

Protecting Penn

The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has announced that it will spend an additional $5 million to boost campus security.

University president Amy Gutmann, executive vice president Craig Carnaroli and provost Ron Daniels unveiled the plan in the Daily Pennsylvanian, the school's student newspaper.

The university plans to increase the number of officers with the university's division of public safety by 20 percent; increase the presence of campus security guards by 50 percent; and spend $2 million to $3 million on lighting, security cameras and emergency phones.

The $5 million is in addition to a $2 million supplemental addition to the security budget that was authorized earlier in the school year. In November 2005, the university reacted to an increase in campus crime by adding more police (including city police officers) and security patrols during overnight hours, improving lighting on and near the campus, adding closed-circuit cameras and adding transportation options.

“In December (2005), overall crime on and near campus decreased by 26 percent (compared with 2004) due to the additional security patrols,” the officials say.

Based on those results, the university decided to devote additional resources to security improvements.

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