Incidents across nation fuel school violence fears

By Michelle L. Klampe, of The News-Sentinel

The image of a boy dangling, bleeding, from a second-story window of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., represents a time in education most would rather forget.

But too many students were killed, wounded or emotionally scarred in Littleton, in Springfield, Ore., in Jonesboro, Ark., and in Paducah, Ky. That carnage unnerved parents and students, and their anxiety persists.

The fear is greater these days, but whether the problems are greater is debatable. The school shootings of the 1990s may obscure a reality educators don't want people to miss: In general, public schools are no less safe today than they were 20 years ago.

"Schools are still among the safest places to be," said J. Douglas Coutts, assistant superintendent for Fort Wayne Community Schools. "National statistics show we are not losing ground. Our schools are safe, and in some cases safer, than they've ever been."

A report last year by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that victimization rates at school for high school seniors changed little between 1976 and 1996.

In 1976, 38.1 percent of seniors reported having something stolen, 5.7 percent of seniors reported having been injured with a weapon, and 12.5 percent reported having been threatened with a weapon. In 1996, 38.3 percent reported having something stolen, 4.9 percent reported being injured with a weapon, and 13.2 percent reported being threatened with a weapon.

"Things really haven't changed all that much in schools," said John H. Weicker, director of security for FWCS. "The problem is dealing with how the perception has changed."

It's a perception fueled by the images of Columbine, or statistics that indicate an estimated 3.3 million crimes were committed against teens while they were in school in 1996.

The National School Safety Center estimates that 525,000 attacks, shakedowns and robberies occur each month in public middle and high schools.

Regardless of whether it's worse now than it was 20 years ago, school violence is a large enough problem that the National Centers for Disease Control has declared it a public health issue.

It hasn't always been this way. Coutts recalled that when he began teaching in 1969, educators worried most about students chewing gum and holding hands.

"Those were the major problems," he said.

Now teachers worry about whether a student might be armed, or could physically assault them. Students worry about whether their classmates might hurt them.

With every episode of violence in schools, parents' and students' perception that schools are unsafe grows. Students who are worried about their safety cannot participate as effectively in classes.

That's why local school districts have poured more money into protecting students against school violence. In 1983, Fort Wayne Community Schools' security budget was $53,000; this year, it topped $600,000.

"Parents have increased their focus on safety," Coutts said. "They're saying it louder than they have in the past."

Schools have added security cameras, hand-held metal detectors, drug-sniffing dog searches, conflict mediators and programs to clearly outline rules and consequences.

This year, for the first time in the district's history, every member of the FWCS staff is required to wear a photo identification badge. Northwest Allen County Schools designated a safety officer.

"People have to feel safe before they can go on and achieve other things," Weicker said. "We have to take care of that basic need."

For some parents, such measures are not enough. Many have turned to private schools or home-schooling.

"Parents are concerned about academic performance, the moral decay and safety," said Joyce Johnson, executive director of the Indiana Association of Home Educators.

Johnson said since the beginning of the decade, her mailing list of Indiana home-schooled families has swelled from about 2,000 to 9,000.

"Fifteen years ago, (home-schooling) was sort of an odd thing to be doing," she said. "Today it's more mainstream."

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