Safety at School Involves More than Student Behavior

Published February 1, 2002

Multiple homicide incidents in U.S. public schools in 1997 led to a significant tightening of school security procedures and policies. Even though these stricter procedures could not completely prevent the occurrence of additional incidents, the number of violent deaths in U.S. schools–which already was falling in 1997–has continued to decline.

While that is no cause for complacency, sometimes more mundane matters can present serious dangers to students: for example, unsafe food handling procedures and lack of attention to fire safety codes.

The multiple murders at West Paducah High School in December 1997 prompted a call for the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to examine school safety. By the time the first Annual Report on School Safety was published in October 1998, further killings had occurred in Springfield, Oregon; Edinboro, Pennsylvania; Jonesboro, Arkansas; West Paducah, Kentucky; and Pearl, Mississippi.

According to the report, an overwhelming majority of public schools in 1996-97 reported having zero-tolerance policies for offenses involving firearms (94 percent) and weapons other than firearms (91 percent). A “zero-tolerance policy” was defined as a school or district policy that mandates predetermined consequences or punishments for specific offenses.

The schools also reported they used a number of measures to increase security, including:

  • requiring visitors to sign in before entering the school building (96 percent);
  • closed campus to prohibit most students from leaving school premises for lunch (80 percent);
  • controlled access to school buildings (53 percent); and
  • daily use of metal detectors (1 percent).

Other measures included having some type of formal school violence prevention/reduction program (78 percent) and requiring students to wear uniforms (4 percent).

Just because a school is in a safe neighborhood doesn’t mean it is immune to criminal incidents. For example, Bayside High School in northeast Queens, one of the safest areas of New York City, reported 53 criminal and misdemeanor incidents–including nine assaults, 21 thefts, and four robberies–in the 2000-01 school year, according to data obtained by the New York Post. By contrast, Boys and Girls High School in the high-crime Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn reported only 22 incidents, of which 17 involved weapons.

Boys and Girls principal Frank Mickens attributes the lower crime rate at his school to an obsession with safety, according to Post reporter Carl Campanile.

Zero Tolerance

While zero tolerance policies bring quick and certain penalties, the punishment sometimes seems to far outweigh the crime. For example, last November in Tarzana, California, Michael Rodriguez, 7, was suspended for one day for taking a small toy gun to school. His mother appealed the suspension, worried it might affect the second-grader’s chances for future college scholarships. But PTA President Yafa Ifrah took a hard line.

“The parents support zero tolerance for weapons because children can start out with toy guns and before you know it, it escalates to real guns,” she told Los Angeles Times reporter Karima A. Haynes. “You have to put it into their heads at a young age that guns are bad because if you don’t, you will have a hard time controlling them later.”

When a first-grader from Edgewood, Texas was sent to an alternative school for troubled students for 11 days in December, he found himself in a classroom all by himself since he was the only “troubled” elementary student at the school. His offense: Bringing his grandfather’s 1 1/2-inch long pocket-knife to school in his backpack. After three days, he was placed in another program with children of his own age.

Hazardous Food?

In an investigation that was the subject of a series of articles last December, the Chicago Tribune found eating school food could be hazardous to a child’s health. In a 1998 incident, at least 1,200 children in at least seven states became ill–often violently ill–after being served a school lunch of tainted burritos from RHSCO Enterprises, Inc.

“Court and government records expose glaring faults in the government regulatory system, from the initial inspection to the issuing of a recall,” wrote Tribune staff reporter David Jackson. Inspections in 1996 and 1997 had noted sanitation deficiencies at the tortilla factory, but no food safety agency inspected the plant during the eight months in 1998 when it produced the tortillas linked to the outbreak.

According to city and school records, there have been at least 41 suspected food poisoning incidents in Chicago schools since 1999, with at least 215 children becoming ill. Records show that in 1999, 172 of Chicago’s schools–about one in four–was cited for rodent infestation or droppings in food preparation areas. Sixty-two schools were cited for repeated code violations in food handling areas.

In response to the Tribune investigation, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan announced a series of reforms to improve the cleanliness of school kitchens and the safety of the meals.

“Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our children,” he declared. “We are absolutely committed to doing what is necessary to ensure that.”

Fire Safety Codes

When fire safety officials identify dangerous conditions in schools, the situation is not always corrected in a timely manner, as Surfside Mayor Paul Novak discovered in Florida. Finding that serious fire safety code violations remained uncorrected in a local public school, Novak filed a class action lawsuit against the Miami-Dade County School Board in June 2000, calling on the Board to correct and remedy “life threatening violations of fire safety and other safety code requirements.” (See “Children Forced to Attend Dangerous Schools,” School Reform News, October 2000.)

In Illinois, responsibility for public school fire safety similarly lies not with fire officials but with the State Board of Education. Fire officials do not have the authority to inspect public school buildings or construction plans–but they have that authority with private and parochial schools. State Senator William F. Mahar (R-Orland Park) plans to introduce a bill this year to give fire marshals authority over school fire safety, according to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Brenda Warner Rotzoll.