Schools on the Alert: Desperate to Protect Kids and Calm Parents, Schools Are Using SWAT Teams, Banning Book Bags and Teaching Students to Get along. Will It Work?

Newsweek, August 23, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Schools on the Alert: Desperate to Protect Kids and Calm Parents, Schools Are Using SWAT Teams, Banning Book Bags and Teaching Students to Get along. Will It Work?


It has been only a few months, but life has changed radically at Permian High in Odessa, Texas. Last May, when the dismissal bell rang out the old academic year, students were Jane and John Anonymous, and the closest thing to surveillance was a couple of security guards passing through the hallways. Last week, when students returned for the new year, they stepped into the new age of high-tech school safety. Every student is now required to wear a computer-coded ID badge. Seventeen surveillance cameras monitor the parking lot and school entrance. And "black boxes," some (no one knows which) containing cameras with audiotape, had been installed in some classrooms by engineers from Sandia National Laboratories, which designs security systems for the U.S. Mint and FBI. Permian, which has 2,100 students, isn't an especially dangerous campus. Still, "we're never satisfied," says principal Brian Rosson. "We're taking proactive steps to make this as safe a place as it can be." But can any measure guarantee safety? That is the question plaguing administrators as school doors open across the country. Overall, school violence has declined this decade. But the mantra "It can't happen here" was buried once and for all with Columbine's young victims. The recent school shootings have forced a growing number of officials to take sometimes desperate measures to assure parents, teachers and students that something is being done to deter violence--even if there is no consensus on the programs' effectiveness. The range of strategies is enormous--from installing metal detectors for guns to training school personnel to identify alienation and hostility before they spin out of control. "There's been a shift from general security to crisis management," says Pete Blauvelt, head of the National Association of School Safety. "The recent shootings have kicked the anxiety meter up 50 or 60 notches."

In their effort to prevent disaster, some schools are adopting a near-militaristic approach. Fire drills are mere child's play compared with student rehearsals for armed intruders. "They know if I come on the P.A. and say 'we're in a lockdown situation'... to clear the hallways, get away from the windows and get down on the floor," says Sharon Cross, principal of Schaumburg High in suburban Chicago, which instituted the drills last winter. "It means someone's life is in danger." The kids aren't the only ones getting ready. Local SWAT teams case the three-story building in the evening and on weekends, uncovering every last nook and cranny. Could a student hide here? Could a gunman flee there? In Pittsburgh, SWAT teams took aim in the hallways of Brashear High last week, staging a mock emergency. Other schools are installing telephones and even panic buttons in classrooms. Many are hiring security officers, some armed, to monitor the comings and goings of students between classes.

City schools, like those in Los Angeles, have had metal detectors for years. But schools well outside urban terrain are now buying the machines, too--at $2,500 apiece. At Garrett Metal Detectors in Garland, Texas, school orders have quadrupled since April, says Jim Dobrei, director of sales and marketing: "When Columbine hit, it threw our production into turmoil." But the detectors are still far from routine. Evanston Township High outside Chicago considered them, but decided they'd be too intrusive. It opted instead for surveillance equipment. The four-story building is now being equipped with 500 video cam- eras in 47 stairwells and 81 exterior doors. The cost: $1 million. "Some people think we're doing this to spy on them," says Kathy Miehls, an Evanston administrator. "But you don't spend that kind of money without a very compelling reason. In the end, it's for safety."

But some experts on school safety wonder whether the pricey high-tech route is the answer. Columbine, for instance, had an armed security guard on the premises. And although video cameras might help with deterrence, they're not going to stop a determined killer.

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Schools on the Alert: Desperate to Protect Kids and Calm Parents, Schools Are Using SWAT Teams, Banning Book Bags and Teaching Students to Get along. Will It Work?
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