The Issue: Learning to Play It Safe
Who is responsible for the safety of our public schools?
Illustration by Jacqui Oakley
The boy in the video looks to be about 14 or 15. He wears loose-fitting jeans and a short-sleeved polo shirt, untucked. He’s average size, average looking, non-threatening.
Facing the camera, he reaches under his shirt, then pulls a small revolver from his waistband. He lays it on the table in front of him. He then reaches into a front pocket, which yields a larger revolver. The gun is followed by three more revolvers, a Derringer and two semi-automatic handguns, all from front pockets or the waistband of his underwear.
Next he pulls a pistol-handled Tech-9 assault weapon and its clip from his backside. Then the coup de grace: A shotgun emerges from his right pants leg. Almost as an afterthought, he produces two more 9 mm automatics from the back of his pants.
When he finishes, 12 firearms lie on the table.
A female voiceover explains that the video demonstrates why the school that made it banned untucked shirts and loose jeans.
The clip, circulated on the Internet for months, is familiar to school security officials across the country. Sobering viewing, it is every parent’s nightmare, a demonstration of the deadly potential of a single schoolboy with access to an array of firearms.
Robin Case of the Delaware Department of Education uses the video when she trains school resource officers. As an education associate for school climate, she oversees the department’s security programs, though each school district, with its own program and rules, is ultimately responsible for the safety of its students.
“Delaware schools are very safe,” says Case. “But my message is: Don’t ever rest on your laurels. We have to be vigilant.”
The numbers bear out her claim that our schools are safe. There has been only one recorded fatal shooting in the history of Delaware schools: April 23, 1970, at the former Pierre S. duPont High School in Wilmington. Derek A. Johnson, 17, a star player on the P. S. football team, was killed just outside the cafeteria by a .38-caliber revolver fired by a teammate, Carleton E. Thornton, 16. Indicted on a charge of first degree murder, Thornton pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Within seven years he was on probation. He was later charged with, though not convicted of, rape, assault on a police officer and intent to sell heroin.
Since 1999 the number of reported gun violations in Delaware public schools has never been higher than four (during the 2002-03 school year). In 2004-05 there were three incidents, and so far this year there have been three reports. Two of those occurred on the same day in December, when a 12-year-old boy took a pellet gun to the Kuumba Academy in the 500 block of North Market Street and a student at Shue-Medill Middle School in Newark took a starter pistol to school. An investigation revealed that the gun was not pointed at any other students or used in a threatening manner. In fact, says Ron Gough, public information officer for the Department of Education, “We are not aware of an incident where a student was injured during the school day as a result of gun violence.” (The department was unaware of the 1970 incident at P.S. DuPont.)
What’s more, no Delaware school qualifies under the state’s definition of “persistently dangerous”—one that has five or more unsafe incidents for every 100 students enrolled for three consecutive fiscal years. (Case is quick to point out, however, that Columbine High School didn’t qualify as persistently dangerous prior to April 20, 1999, the day two Columbine students killed 13 of their schoolmates.)
George Bear, a professor in the University of Delaware College of Education, has studied school security for many years and sometimes consults with the Department of Education. Despite tragedies like Columbine and recent shootings in nearby Lancaster County and Springfield Township, Pennsylvania, he says, “Children are much safer in school than at the mall, in neighborhoods and in their homes, in which about half have guns and where most homicides occur.”
“Students were far less safe 15 years ago than they have been in recent years,” claims Bear. “Whereas there were 22 students murdered [nationwide] by students during the 1992-1993 school year, two were shot and killed in 2000-2001, one in 2001-2002, five in 2002-2003, and seven in 2003-2004.”
Bear, whose wife and son are Delaware teachers, says too many schools overreact to anticipated acts of violence. “Obviously,” he says, “one shooting is one too many, but some security measures simply aren’t justified by the level of violence.”
He opposes extensive security systems that include metal detectors and escorts for every person entering the building. First of all, he says, “They won’t stop someone from doing what they want to do if they are determined to do it. And research shows that security issues have occurred at schools with metal detectors and security officers. They are really not good deterrents, particularly when the intruder has an assault weapon and the security officer has only a handgun.”
Many parents are concerned, yet secretary of education Valerie Woodruff agrees, noting that our free and open society inherently places some limits on security measures. “Some tragedies simply can’t be prevented,” she says. She and Bear, like most educators, emphasize that it’s important to stay focused on the primary mission of schools—education—when considering security measures. “You have to [strike a] balance,” says Woodruff. “Do you want the school to look like a prison or an institution, or do you want it to be a place where the people who work there and go to school there can feel as though it’s a comfortable place to be?”
If a school has experienced acts of violence, Bear says, strict security measures need to be in place; possession of a gun should result in immediate expulsion. “But in the vast majority of schools in Delaware, where you don’t have violence, the best way to prevent it is to not turn our schools into prisons, where you have guards every time you turn a corner, where you have fences around the building, random checks of lockers, uniforms, IDs they have to wear and zero tolerance for the least little act of disobedience,” he says. Such measures “create a climate in which kids hate school. It’s a much, much better use of money to try to prevent the problems from happening by working with the kids. Research supports this.”
The Columbine tragedy had some positive effect on the nation’s schools. Not only did it put them on higher alert, but it also demonstrated that students need to play a role in school security. Bear cites an FBI study that found that in almost all cases of gun violence in schools, the perpetrators told at least one other student prior to the event.
Woodruff, who was principal of Middletown High School for eight years before becoming secretary of education, confirms that finding. “In my experience,” she says, “kids tell someone when another kid brings something to school that they shouldn’t.” That’s exactly what occurred in the two December incidents at Kuumba Academy and Shue-Medill. The key, she says, is creating “an atmosphere where kids feel they can go to an adult in a building and say, ‘I’m a little concerned. Johnny is acting a little funny today.’”
That’s the kind of atmosphere most good schools are aiming for, says Bear. “If you have a climate where kids trust the teachers and trust each other, you are a lot less likely to have shootings.”
One key to Delaware’s excellent safety record is its school resource officer program. There is an SRO—either a state or municipal police officer—on duty at every high school and most middle schools. The SRO program is a three-pronged initiative that focuses on law enforcement, law-related education in the classrooms and counseling.
Detective Corporal Tom Wood, a veteran of 17 years with the Delaware State Police, has been the SRO at Mount Pleasant High School in Claymont for seven years.
“Just like any other form of police work, you never know what your day’s going to bring,” says Wood. “But what I do the most of is counseling.”
Hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t meet with a student, a parent or a teacher. “It involves decision making, conflict resolution, behavior modification—a whole range of topics,” he says. “Sometimes kids will come in and they’re having a bad day, and they just need to unwind a little bit.”
Wood, whose son is a junior at Mount Pleasant, believes any student with knowledge of a potential violent act would inform him or someone on the administrative staff. “I feel very confident that kids know me well enough that they can come and tell me just about anything.”
At Mount Pleasant, like most schools, all doors are locked except one. (In some schools, a visitor has to be buzzed in to get through that door. At others, a visitor can simply walk in.) Staff members are assigned to hall duty to challenge anyone who doesn’t have a visitor’s pass.
Wood says that his “numbers”—reportable cases involving student problems—have dropped steadily. Last year he investigated 33 cases. In the previous year the total was 45, and in 2003-04 it was 53. The cases range from drug and alcohol offenses to assaults, fighting, disorderly conduct and offensive touching.
Though Wood feels his school is safe, one change he would make—contrary to George Bear’s position—is to require student identification badges. “There are approximately a thousand kids in this school, and I don’t know everyone,” says Wood. “It would make it easier on the staff if we had ID badges to spot an intruder of student age.” Not three years ago, he says, students from another school entered Mount Pleasant and assaulted a student. ID badges, he says, might have helped to prevent the incident.
During the 2004-05 school year there were 676 suspensions and three expulsions involving 282 students at Mount Pleasant. That’s 28.7 percent of its student population. Some percentages from other Delaware public high schools: A.I. DuPont, 27.8 percent; Brandywine, 17.8 percent; Caesar Rodney, 10.3 percent; Cape Henlopen, 9.9; Dover, 38.7; Glasgow, 32.6; McKean, 38.8; Smyrna, 21.1, and William Penn, 24.7. The average for the entire state in the 2004-05 school year was 12.3.
At Newark High, one of the state’s largest schools, the percentage was 20.6 percent of an enrollment of 1,901. Senior Tony Mangini has spent all four of his high school years at Newark, and he has always felt safe, though he says the potential for “problems” does exist.
“There could be a problem if you wanted to make a problem for yourself,” he says. “There’s the occasional confrontational person, but they usually stick with their own group.”
As in most schools, Mangini says, Newark students know who to avoid. “But as far as a random act of violence,” he says, “that would never happen.”
He calls the school’s SRO, Newark Police Corporal Greg Micolucci, “very understanding. And he has an open-door policy. You can talk to him any time.”
Aside from the SRO, there are three female hall monitors. And, Mangini says, [outgoing] Newark principal Emmanuel Caulk “is not very patient with the clowns” in school.
Newark High attempts to anticipate and defuse violence through a school psychologist, an intervention specialist and social worker. And like most Delaware high schools, there is a Wellness Center with counselors on site. “They have peer mediation,” says Mangini, “where if you have a problem with somebody, you take it down there and they counsel the two of you. This is highly preventative because it helps work out your differences.”
He dismisses metal detectors as “unnecessary and excessive.”
One drawback with metal detectors is the expense. “We’ve used them at some athletic events,” says Case, “and there is a huge cost factor, not only for the equipment, but for the manpower to monitor them. I don’t think they work, and I don’t think they’re something our schools would endorse.”
Everyone seems to agree with that assessment, including Woodruff. “In my mind we would be far better off putting money into prevention programs and providing support, particularly for kids who have emotional problems,” she says. “We don’t have nearly enough support for kids who are troubled. I’d like to see more community-based effort.
“Most people want to lay all this responsibility on the schools,” she says, “but it’s not something that schools should have to deal with alone, and if we don’t think about this in a community kind of effort, then we will not be serving ourselves or our students well.” D