No cheap, fast solutions for school safety concerns

Sunday, August 15, 1999

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief among teachers and administrators when the final class bell rang last June.

“I've never been so happy to see the year end,” one superintendent told me. “I only hope we can start fresh next year.”

Why the high anxiety? In a word: Columbine.

Threats and pranks, real and imagined, plagued many schools for weeks following the tragedy in Littleton, Colo. Administrators in some places spent many frantic hours tracking down rumors, disciplining pranksters, heading off real threats and calming parental fears.

Now that the “crisis” is over (meaning that the media have moved on), are schools ready for the “fresh start” represented by a new school year?

The answer depends on how you define the problem schools are facing and how you think it can be solved.

Politicians, media pundits and some educators talk about the problem as “school violence” and cite “school safety” as the solution. Angry fingers are pointing in all directions. Everyone seems to have a quick fix.

Notice how adept we are these days at blaming everyone but ourselves for societal problems — and how badly we want solutions that are instant and cheap, much like our coffee and fast food.

Case in point: Orders from school districts for metal detectors have been way up this summer. (Ironically, Columbine itself has resisted the siege mentality.) This, despite the fact that the number of weapons kids bring to school was way down last year.

I'm not suggesting that there's something wrong about beefing up security in schools, especially in districts with a pattern of violence. Sometimes immediate action is necessary.

But we ought to have learned by now that a Band-Aid won't remedy the moral and spiritual crisis facing many young people.

If I'm right — if the problem cuts deeper than school safety — then we need to find a long-term, comprehensive solution. That's a big “we.” Schools can't do it all; families, faith communities, businesses and civic groups also have crucial roles to play.

Working together, there's much we can do in schools to help build moral (and safe) communities for our children.

A good starting point might be for parents, school boards, administrators and teachers to ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Does our district make every effort to involve parents in the decision-making process and in the life of the school?
  2. Has our district reached out to religious communities and other community groups for help with mentoring and other cooperative programs? Do we have policies for partnerships with faith communities that are consistent with the First Amendment?
  3. What is the character education mission of our schools? Do we have a comprehensive plan to teach and model core moral values in the curriculum and throughout the school culture?
  4. How well do we teach civic principles and virtues in our schools? Do students have opportunities for service to the school and the community?
  5. Is there some place in our curriculum where students learn about the religious and ethical traditions that have been and continue to be important in the lives of millions of people?
  6. Does our district have clear, constitutional policies and guidelines that protect the religious-liberty rights of students?

As the school year progresses, I'll use this space to highlight how some schools around the country are answering these questions. (I welcome your nominations.) The spotlight of national media attention may have moved on, but it's crucial that we keep looking for a lasting solution to our schools' real problem.