Before Nicholas Hall, 16, heads to school each morning, he checks to make sure he hasn't forgotten his photo-identification card. Without the card, he can't make it past the front door of Booker T. Washington High School.
As a junior at the school, located in a tough downtown neighborhood in Memphis, Hall is experiencing first-hand the tactics schools are using to create safe learning environments - places where students don't look fearfully over their shoulders as they scurry from class to class.Places where outsiders can't get in, bringing trouble.
In 1978, a national survey found crime and violence to be commonplace in American schools.
The study, by the National Institute of Education, found that each month 282,000 students were physically attacked, 112,000 students were robbed through force, weapons or threat; 6,000 teachers were robbed; and 1,000 teachers were assaulted seriously enough to require medical attention.
Ten years later, although there has been no national follow-up survey, regional reports suggest consistent levels of crime and violence, said Ronald Stevens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Encino, Calif.
"One of the things that we have seen is that the acts of crime that are being committed are tending to be much more violent now, increased possession of weapons on campus, gangs in schools," Stevens said.
"This year, since January, I would estimate at least 30 shootings on campuses and half of those resulted in death to either students or staff."
The National Education Association, which periodically polls teachers about student attacks, reports increasingly higher rates over the past 15 years.
Between 1973-78, the attacks per 100,000 teachers ranged from 2,400 to 3,300; in 1979-83, between 4,600 and 5,700. In 1986, the poll showed 8,000 attacks per 100,000 teachers.
In response, schools are tightening security, putting up fences, locking gates, hiring security guards. In New York, the schools are considering the use of metal detectors to check for guns and knives.
"We wear ID badges because it keeps outsiders out, so they won't come in," Hall said, adding that without the security "it may get out of order again like it was before."
This spring the National School Safety Center co-sponsored a national conference on school safety with the Council of Great City Schools and the Detroit Public Schools. Participants from 14 of the nation's largest school districts developed six strategies for safer schools:
- Get the public more involved in school activities.
- Improve school leadership skills.
- Keep guns and other weapons off campuses.
- Make schools and surrounding neighborhoods drug free.
- Halt negative gang activity.
- Improve discipline of youth in school and at home.
"School safety is a complex issue," said Alfred Dean, director of security operations for the Philadelphia School District. "You cannot relegate school safety just to school security personnel. Everyone must be included in making a safe, secure and welcoming campus."
After three years at Ensley High School in Birmingham, Ala., principal David Matthews, one of today's tough school officials who has been battling gangs and confiscating guns, is beginning to see some positive results. The Class of '88 won $800,000 in scholarship money, for instance; and the school's Army ROTC program was named tops in the city.