Are there safety issues at your school? Are your children tempted at school with drugs or alcohol? What is being done to combat these realities? These sure seem to be reasonable questions for parents to ask.
For school boards, they're not only reasonable questions, but they're prudent questions that should be routinely asked.
An interesting exercise for any parent might be to send their school board an email and ask them when they last held a meaningful discussion on the matter. What was the date of the meeting? What statistics and data sources were reviewed? What is the strategic plan for safety, and what is used to measure success and progress?
While some might certainly be on top of it, I suspect that most give this important subject a casual glance at best. They might direct you to the state report they file, which is largely useless and innacurate.
Some boards fail to ask at all.
And some boards go as far as to resist and obstruct efforts to learn more.
This clearly seems to be nothing short of gross negligence.
School safety is a complicated topic, and one that I think does not get enough attention.
While statistically most children are very safe from physical harm at schools, keeping them that way requires diligent effort. And physical security is only part of the issue; schools must also help to protect against drugs, theft, and other misconduct which is not only illegal, but is also a learning distraction.
Rochester has been superficially discussing school safety for several years – several long years – after grappling with threats of a “Columbine-style” attack were scrawled on a bathroom wall.
Trying to secure the buildings is an issue, with modern technology such as video cameras and card-swipe locks. But it’s more than that… it’s also about helping to change the culture in schools. These are all important and essential elements in what should be a comprehensive and integrated security plan.
It’s not unlike what we face in American society today.
Oddly enough, the biggest challenge has NOT been trying to debate action plans.
Instead, it’s been on ongoing battle to simply assess the situation in district buildings.
Finally, building administrators and police liaison officers – the “boots on the ground” in high schools – were allowed to share their first hand perspectives, only to have their comments twisted and character attacked.
It was shocking to see the steadfast refusal by some to even consider that high schools have issues with drugs, alcohol, fights, and theft.
From my perspective, cameras and locks have taken a backseat to the larger problem of education. Not of educating the students… but of educating the adults.
I wrote about this issue in this opinion piece:
Rochester Eccentric: Focus on facts in school safety debate (10/05/08)
What remains unclear to me is whether this is a head-in-the-sand issue, or whether this is a don’t-publicly-tarnish-our-image issue. In any case, it's hardly a responsible approach.
(As an interesting side note, there is new federal legislation -- HR2352 -- that just passed the house which is designed to aid the effort of responsible school boards to enhance safety in schools. Ironically, it made it's way to the Senate on September 22, 2008, the same day that the Rochester board seemed to bury it's efforts to enhance safety.)
I’ve pasted below the full text of my op-ed in case the link doesn’t work
Focus on facts in school safety debate
A few short years ago threats of violence against a Rochester school interrupted learning, distracted administrators, and cost taxpayers plenty in police overtime.
In response, the district convened a school safety committee, which recommended various measures, including security technology. The board considered - and even budgeted for - some security items, only to rescind the funding last month.
Basically the board's come full circle since the 2005 threats, and its primary building security strategy now consists of pep assemblies promoting safety.
While the lack of a comprehensive safety-security plan and no planned investment in security technology is a worry, perhaps the greater concern is how the board approached this complex issue, almost looking for reasons to deny that high schools face difficult challenges.
To better understand the need for security technology, I requested that the Oakland County Sheriff's School Liaison program - whose deputies work in district buildings - be permitted to share their professional perspectives with the board.
At the Sept. 8 board meeting the deputies - flanked by building principals - carefully explained that fights occasionally occur in high school; fights that have even spread into the greater community after school. In an upscale community like Rochester, it came as no surprise that kids bring expensive Coach purses, iPods, and cell phones to school, and they get stolen. Vandalism can be expensive. And while some adults prefer not to discuss the presence of drugs and alcohol in schools, they are indeed present.
With these experiences as a backdrop, the board then heard how security technology could help their efforts.
There was no suggestion that the district is facing any sort of "crisis."
On the contrary, great care was taken to emphasize that Rochester has safe schools, a great student population, and a hard-working supportive staff. One officer stressed, "I spend 90 percent of my time with 10% of the students who cause 90% of the problems."
Their comments simply reinforced the undeniable reality that some high school teens occasionally make poor choices.
I later obtained the Sheriff's crime statistics, and the superintendent shared the district's disciplinary action statistics. This data confirms that high schools in Rochester - like schools everywhere - must contend with student misconduct and crime. Certainly not in epidemic proportions, but enough to warrant diligent attention.
Furthermore, information from Rochester Area Youth Assistance (RAYA) confirms our community does indeed face challenges with teenage drug and alcohol abuse. In fact, a few years ago the group received a federal grant to help their efforts because Rochester's teen substance abuse is above average.
After hearing deputy input, and reviewing the statistics, I'm reassured and proud of the law enforcement team that serves our schools. Our city governments - and the taxpayers - deserve a sincere "Thanks!" for supporting the Police Liaison program.
But then the Sept. 22 board meeting saw an obviously organized effort to refute the deputies. A few speakers implied the deputies' comments about crime in schools were a matter of opinion rather than fact.
The rebuttals defended the honor of a school, as if the public admission of crime was somehow an "insult." The showing of school spirit was admirable, but counterproductive because it left the impression that Rochester schools are problem-free, with no safety and security needs.
This disconnect from reality is a huge concern.
After hearing this, I suggested a community forum to discuss school safety and security. I proposed inviting the public, law enforcement, RAYA, and our distinguished district court judges, who collectively represent a broad cross-section of insights on the magnitude of these issues, and how they impact our community. The forum would dispassionately focus on facts, and ultimately create a community-based plan to better serve our children.
I thought this idea would be well received by board members, particularly those who had initially expressed concerns after hearing the deputies.
However, I was rebuffed with a clear reminder that other board members have high school-aged children, while I do not, and they "just haven't experienced" these "situations" in Rochester schools. Apparently anecdotal information trumps data from the professionals.
Such arbitrary and preposterous reasoning succinctly illustrates this board's all-too-common approach to discussion, debate, and problem-solving.
The fact that some board members' children aren't exposed to drugs, fights or theft is a wonderful testament to the hard work of district staff and law enforcement professionals. But statistics suggest other Rochester children face different realities, and the board has a responsibility to reach decisions based on the needs of all children.
Safety and security challenges are hardly limited to Rochester. For example, Royal Oak's superintendent, recognizing the impact drug use has on high school learning environments, has proposed confidential random drug testing, with results forwarded directly to parents. William Beaumont Hospital - a wonderful corporate citizen - acknowledges the magnitude of the problem and has offered to help them.
Public discussion of these serious issues creates the perfect opportunity to engage parents, and encourage them to become part of the solution. Pretending they don't exist, downplaying them, or attempting to bury them with public relations tactics, simply furthers the notion that public schools are out of touch with reality.
Let the school board know if you believe further discussion on this matter would be worthwhile.
Personally, I believe exploring the facts would be a valuable experience for all of us, regardless of whether our own children have been directly impacted.